What Is Temperament, Exactly?

Let’s talk about the chief component of your identity: temperament. You’ve all heard someone say something like, “Oh, yes! She’s got a great temperament for a nurse [accountant, scientist, stuntman, writer, or whatever].” Well, what is it that makes a person right for what they’re doing? It’s all about behavioral preferences. Now, before you run away shrieking that you can’t endure another word of this psychobabble, hang in there for a second.

By the time we become teenagers, we all develop certain favorite ways of doing things. We become increasingly predictable about how we most likely will react in certain situations. Those reactions define our behaviors. The fact that we repeat those behaviors shows that we prefer them, as if they are instinctive. In fact, they really are instinctive. Thus, the phrase behavioral preferences merely means “the way we like to live our lives.” Now that wasn’t so bad, was it? Good. There’s more.

Let’s examine “temperament.” Our temperament is determined by our innate preference for one of four pairs of six traits. Whoa! Say that again? Okay.

Let’s start with the “six traits.” What are they? Each is represented by a letter (just ignore what the letter is; we’ll explain that later). Here they are:

S = realism
N = dreaming
T = analysis
F = sympathy
J = planning
P = improvisation

Other words could represent our six letters, but these will do for now. Take a minute and ponder each one. See any relationships?

These six basic traits, or (here’s that phrase again) behavioral preferences form up in pairs inside our brains. We all tend to prefer one or the other of a trait from each horizontal pair in the columns above. That is, in most situations we consistently prefer, for example, realism to dreaming, sympathy to analysis, or planning to improvisation. Some of us may prefer just the opposite. That’s what makes the world such a fun place.

Now, let’s get a little more complex. As I mentioned, the six traits team up in twos to form four pairs of “letters” (some letters are used twice). Recall that somewhat confusing sentence: “Our temperament is determined by our innate preference for one of four pairs of six traits”? Okay. Now we’re getting somewhere.