Story posted November 30, 2006
Even though Assistant Professor of Psychology Samuel Putnam regularly hears from temperament researchers around the world — this week alone, from India, the Netherlands and Chile — he still sounds incredulous at the growing reach of the Bowdoin College Toddler Temperament Laboratory.
The lab, which he established when he joined Bowdoin's psychology department in 2001, is at the center of new research on stability and instability in temperament — beginning at childhood’s earliest stages.
“More and more people are using temperament as a way of explaining children’s behavior,” says Putnam. “When I first started studying it, it was not taken as seriously as it is now — most people assumed children were different because of the way their parents had raised them. Now, it’s almost taken for granted by the developmental psychology community — and the public at large — that there are inborn differences.”
Putnam recently completed a 100-child study of children ages 18 to 36 months that indicated the presence of shyness as early as fourth months. Through play-oriented research tasks, Putnam and his crew of Bowdoin student-researchers also were able to pinpoint children high in exuberance.
“We were able to show that there is a distinction between being shy and just being disinterested,” notes Putnam, who published part of his findings in the journal Infant Behavior and Development last summer. “One reason why kids don’t engage in novel activities is because they are scared. The other reason is because they just aren’t interested. The data suggest that those who don’t engage because they are fearful are at risk for internalizing disorders, such as anxiety and depression, whereas those who are merely disinterested do not appear to be at risk.
“It may be that those children we call ‘dull’ are actually those kids who can control their attention at will. They appear to be the most stable personality.”
Part of Putnam’s work relies on parent questionnaires, which offer more detailed information about the children in a variety of settings. Putnam developed the questionnaires as part of his post-doctoral research with Mary Rothbart, a pre-eminent researcher in temperament at the University of Oregon. Since her recent retirement, the Rothbart Questionnaires have found a new home at Putnam’s personal Bowdoin College Web site.
“Mary’s instruments are so well-crafted and extensive — and her theoretical approach is so popular — that many researchers are seeking these instruments on Bowdoin’s Web site,” notes Putnam. “And the Bowdoin IT team has developed a way to easily track who is seeking the instruments. I hope to facilitate a cross-cultural comparison of the data researchers are getting. It’s a huge data set that we can use for future questionnaire refinement.”