The word "temperament" is used frequently in everyday speech. People will refer to another person, or even an object, as "temperamental." To social scientists, temperament is not a set of behaviors per se; it is not an ability, such as thinking, or a set of actions, such as playing. Instead, temperament is a behavioral style. It is not what a person does, but how that person does it. It is not that the boy cries, but that he cries frequently. It is not that the girl walks, but that she walks quickly.

In 1987 a prominent cognitive psychologist, Robert McCall, created a definition of temperament that included elements common to the four main theories of temperament at the time. According to McCall, temperament is defined as biologically based individual differences in reactions to the world; these reactions are relatively stable across development. Temperament is not personality but is one of the bases of later personality differences. Personality characteristics include traits and behaviors that are acquired after infancy and some that are not influenced by biological factors. Habits, goals, and self-perceptions are aspects of people's personalities, but they are not temperament traits. Given the complexity of the definition, it may be helpful to discuss the three elements common to all temperament characteristics: (1) the individual differences are present at birth, (2) the differences are inherent in the person, and (3) the differences are stable across development.

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