Nature or Nurture? Bowdoin Study Examines Origins of Temperament

Toddler plays with blocks

Story posted October 14, 2004

His hair is a mop of blonde; his sneakers are caked with mud. "Come on, Mama," he implores as he pulls his mother into a small room tucked inside Bowdoin's Banister Hall. In an adjacent room, hidden behind a two-way mirror, Bowdoin junior Nicole Wilson '06 sets up video-recording equipment. Nearby, Alexa Ogata '06 gathers an assortment of toys.

"He seems active, high in surgency," says Ogata, as the two-year-old runs around the room, finally flopping himself on a cushion near his mother. "Yup," says Wilson, focusing her lens squarely on him.

Over the course of an hour, Ogata will enter the room many times to interact with the toddler in carefully choreographed sequences of play. She will bring him blocks to stack, books to read, puzzles, and a cart full of gaudy, noise-making toys -- the latter of which she will ask him not to touch. Everything she says has been scripted. Every interaction is designed to evoke response. Everything the child does will be recorded and analyzed by a bank of student research-assistants.

Will the two-year-old be able to resist the flashing lights and musical allure of the toys? Will he maintain his focus on the puzzles or need to continually check in with mom? His responses may reveal more than just his current impulse-control or shyness -- they could indicate whether he will be extroverted or introverted as an adult, whether he might be prone to angry outbursts or stymied by anxieties. It may also suggest specific parenting strategies to help him balance the many influences that make up his basic temperament.

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Psychology major Alexa Ogata '06 engages a toddler in a task designed to measure an aspect of temperament.

This child is one of more than 100 Maine toddlers participating in a child development study conducted by Bowdoin Assistant Professor of Psychology Samuel Putnam. The longitudinal study assesses toddler temperament in children ages 18 to 36 months to determine, among other things, whether their basic temperamental responses change over time.

Putnam has been conducting the research for nearly two years, employing over 20 Bowdoin student-researchers, and logging in some 300-plus hours of laboratory-observation time. Results from a similar study he completed at Penn State are the subject of an article to be published in the February 2005 issue of the journal Child Development.

Putnam's research is significant in the field of child temperamental development because it attempts to measure children's "approach" tendencies -- their motivation to seek out and enjoy novel objects, people and situations. Historically, most research in this area has focused on the reverse -- measuring childrens' inhibitions, or fearfulness, as an indicator of personality. Putnam believes approach measurement must be part of the equation to accurately understand temperament.

"It may be that a surplus of approach motivation is more meaningful, more influential, than the tendency to be shy," says Putnam. "The trick in studying it is to disentangle the two."

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Ogata, Wilson and Putnam (left to right) observe and film a toddler behind a two-way mirror in the psychology lab.

Putnam designed a battery of tests designed to expose kids to low-intensity and high-intensity stimuli to observe their levels of approach and their accompanying emotions. Positive emotions are those that would lead the child to approach; negative emotions -- particularly fear -- would inhibit approach. He also gave parents a series of questionnaires about their child's levels of activity, attention, emotions, impulsivity, and sociability, among other things.

Lab-based tests varied from the very mild -- engaging the child in gentle play with a toy -- to those designed to evoke stronger emotions, such as frustration, anger, or fearfulness. In the most extreme test, a student researcher enters the lab dressed in an academic robe and monstrous Halloween mask. It's a test designed to evoke fear -- the levels of which will be coded and analyzed when the videotape is later viewed and cataloged.

"This is the only time I feel like a meany," says Putnam, as Alexa Ogata dons her mask and prepares to enter the lab. "It really does scare some kids. But if a kid cries for five consecutive seconds, we stop. And the mother is there to console them, if need be."

When Ogata enters the lab her young subject abruptly stops his play and stares. His brow furrows and he frowns. "Noooo," he whines, almost more disappointed than frightened. "No, noooo." As he reproaches Ogata, curiously, he also approaches her -- a phenomenon Putnam says he's never seen before.

When Ogata takes off the mask and reveals herself, the boy grabs the mask and throws it on the ground with a final, "No!"

So, what does this interaction reveal about the boy? "Well," says Putnam, "this is the prototypical high-approach kid. He has been talkative and active since he walked through the door. Surpisingly though, he's somewhat high in fear as well."

To the layman, these distinctions may seem negligible, but as Putnam pieces together thousands of such interactions among his sample of toddlers, patterns begin to emerge.

As Putnam pieces together thousands of such interactions among his sample of toddlers, patterns begin to emerge.

"Our research suggests that kids who have high approach and are positive are also likely to be angry in other situations," notes Putnam. "In other words, the same thing that comes out as exuberance in one situation is likely to come out as anger, if the child's goals are blocked. Whereas kids who were negative -- fearful -- especially in high-intensity situations are described by parents as having social withdrawal, early indicators of anxiety and depression."

Is this proof positive that personality is largely determined at birth -- that it is more biological than psychological?

"Is it nature, is it nurture? It's the question that has been argued for centuries," says Putnam. "Advances in molecular genetics provide more conclusive evidence that biology determines to a large extent how we behave and how we're different, but I want to examine some of the instability of temperament, to look at how nurture works with nature. How do interactions between parenting and child temperament predict other things? What aspects of parenting might determine why a shy kid becomes less shy, or why an angry kid becomes less angry?"

It was those kinds of questions that led Heather, a mother of three from Freeport, to participate in the study with her infant daughter. "I've been a teacher and I was always able to learn an awful lot through other peoples' research," she says. "I wanted to give back and I knew I would gain knowledge about my own parenting process and about my child."

Over her three lab sessions, she says she has observed distinctive personality traits in her daughter -- who also has a twin sister. "Unlike her sister, she displayed a lot of gender-based behavior. She was shy when approached by males and more talkative around females. It was interesting to see how the behavior begins, really, at zero and is the same at 6 months and at 36 months."

Putnam culled his subjects by canvassing daycare centers from South Portland to Lewiston. From there, he graduated to birth notices, sending invitations to new parents to join the study. He recruited a wide cross-section of families, each of whom was paid a total of $100 for four data-collection sessions, including three, hour-long play sessions for their child.

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Alexa Ogata, right, plans to do an honors project based on her participation in Putnam's study.

Putnam's data collection has been extensive, offering a large pool of information into which student researchers can dip for independent-study projects. "I give my students the freedom to carve out of it what they want," says Putnam. "As students stay in my lab over several semesters they get more chances to test out their predictions. Some have even co-authored papers with me and presented them at national conferences."

Ogata plans to do an honors project next year on how parents respond to different displays of temperament -- particularly when their child engages in risky or frustrating behavor. "So much is unknown about child development," she says. "If you can find distinct patterns you may be able to predict their future outcomes. I really like learning about the normal development of kids and the parental influences."

Putnam's work thus far has been supported entirely with Bowdoin Faculty Research Funds, with student research-grants provided in large measure by Psychology Department funds. For the next phase of research -- a study of parental interaction and influence on temperament -- he has applied for a grant from the National Institutes of Mental Health.

"I want to give parents the tools to make educated decisions about parenting to the specifics of the individual."

Putnam hopes the next phase of research will take his data a step further to support new approaches to parenting. "I want to examine parenting through temperament," says Putnam, "with the idea that some aspects of parenting that are good for one kid, may be bad for another. I want to give parents the tools to make educated decisions about parenting to the specifics of the individual. I hope to free them up to treat their kids differently and feel okay about that."

Ultimately, he says, he hopes to write a book about common parenting challenges -- picky eating, toilet training, sleep problems -- tailored to different types of children. "The thing that works for inhibited kids is gentle discipline," he observes. "They already have a high level of arousal and just need a little bit of discipline to induce conscience. By contrast, gentle or harsh discipline doesn't make much difference with highly uninhibited kids. They are more reward oriented and what seems important is to develop a positive relationship with their parent."

Putnam joined the Bowdoin faculty in Fall 2001.

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