Active Covariance

While the concept of active covariance (niche picking) has been the focus of much theoretical speculation (e.g., Plomin, 1994; Scarr & McCartney, 1983), remarkably little research exists that actually documents how individuals with different temperaments act in ways that result in their inhabiting different types of contexts. One of the few examples we have of the process of active temperament-context covariance is seen in the work of Matheny (1986), showing how more active children, or children with less tractable temperaments, have a higher probability of putting themselves in dangerous situations that result in a greater frequency of physical injuries. Based on an underlying model where low arousability promotes high sensation seeking (Strelau, 1994), individual differences in sensation seeking have been linked to a variety of contextually relevant behavioral characteristics, such as substance abuse, sexual patterns, and reckless behavior, that could act to increase the individual's level of exposure to physical danger (Zuckerman, 1994). Alternatively, Gunnar (1994) has provided an elegant documentation of how, even in the same classroom, highly inhibited or uninhibited children experience different microenvironments, with inhibited children being more likely to be involved in familiar low peer contact activities while uninhibited children are more likely to be engaged in unfamiliar activities and have higher levels of peer social interactions and peer conflict.

Unfortunately, in terms of understanding the extent and impact of active temperament-context covariance currently we are restricted to these few examples. There are a variety of reasons why our database is so limited. One obvious reason involves the effort required to document such covariance. Obviously, we need highly accurate measures of individual temperament. Perhaps even more critically, we need detailed measures of the physical and social contextual characteristics that individuals with different temperaments inhabit. Such contextual measures are time consuming to obtain and cannot be derived from global, social address context assessments. However, even if we had such detailed assessments, I predict that we would not find the strong relations between individual temperament and subsequent contexts predicted by some theories (e.g., Scarr & McCartney, 1983). In good part, this is because active covariance processes will be moderated by, or will act in concert with, a variety of nontemperament characteristics. The operation of such nontemperament moderators is seen in some of the examples presented above. Thus, Matheny (1991) has reported that, in addition to child temperament, risk of child injury is also influenced by aspects of the child's context that are not likely to be influenced by the child's temperament, such as home chaos. Gunnar (1994) has noted that the degree to which inhibited children engage in unfamiliar classroom activities will depend on nontemperament aspects of classroom characteristics, such as organization level in the classroom and degree of teacher sensitivity and support.

The fact that links between an individual's temperament and an individual's context can be attenuated by a variety of influences other than temperament illustrates a larger issue directly related to the active covariance process itself. In general, the assumption underlying both theory (Scarr & McCartney, 1983) and research in this area (Schulenberg, Wadsworth, O'Malley, Bachman, & Johnston, 1996) is that individuals have a high degree of freedom to self-select into a variety of different contextual niches. In contrast, I would argue that there will be multiple limitations on one's ability to self-select into different types of contexts. Specifically, a variety of biological (e.g., malnutrition, chronic illness), caregiver belief (e.g., tolerance of child independence, authoritarian rearing styles), cultural (e.g., racism), and nontemperament individual characteristics (e.g., attachment, cognitive ability) can act both to influence the individual's exposure to different environmental contexts as well as the individual's ability to self-select into different contexts (Wachs, 2000a). For example, over time children with an extremely difficult temp erament may be more likely to find themselves limited not only in terms of the types of peer groups available to them (Cairns, Cairns, Neckerman, Crest, & Gariety, 1988), but also in terms of educational and employment opportunities (Caspi, Elder, & Bem, 1987). Thus, even in a situation where there are ongoing active temperament-context covariance processes occurring, it will be essential to go beyond only temperament per se when attempting to understand how individuals with specific temperament characteristics have a higher probability of encountering and staying in different types of contexts.


In previous sections, I have documented temperament influences on environment and environmental influences on temperament. However, it also is important to consider the possibility that transactional processes (Sameroff & Fiese, 1990), involving mutual bi-directional influences between temperament and environment operating over time, may be a better way of understanding relations between environment and temperament. One such example of mutual influences is seen in the work of Maccoby et al. (1984), who assessed both level of child difficultness and degree of maternal involvement during task situations at 12 and 18 months. Maccoby et al. reported that, while boys whose mothers were highly involved in teaching activities became less difficult between 12 and 18 months (environment — temperament), mothers with more difficult boys became less involved in teaching activities over the same time period (temperament — environment). A similar pattern of bidirectional reactivity was shown by Engfer (1986), who measured maternal sensitivity and child emotionality from the neonatal period through 18 months of age. Engfer's results indicated that, while maternal sensitivity in the neonatal period related to lower child difficultness at 4 months of age, child difficultness at 4 months of age related to lower maternal sensitivity at 8 months of age which, in turn, predicted lower child difficultness at 18 months of age (environment — temperament — environment). Bidirectional relations between infant sociability and maternal responsivity (Thoman, 1990), between infants' negative emotionality and maternal responsivity and sensitivity (Crockenberg & McCluskey, 1986), between infants soothability and degree of maternal soothing (Lewis & Ramsay, 1999) and between children's emotional self-regulation capacity and patterns of peer interaction also have been reported (Eisenberg & Fabes, 1992). Such bi-directional influences between temperament and context reinforce the basic hypothesis of this chapter; namely, that one cannot understand the nature or development of temperament in isolation from context. However, such findings also support the hypothesis that one cannot understand the nature or impact of context without also considering the temperamental characteristics of individuals in specific contexts.


Relations between temperament and subsequent development can be either conceptualized in main effect terms (temperament development) or in terms of multiple main effects (additive coaction: temperament + environment — development). However, main effects and additive coaction are not the only means by which temperament can influence development. As noted earlier, there also is the possibility of interactions among different temperament dimensions, as seen in evidence showing that linkages between negative emotionality and subsequent behavior problems will vary depending on the individual's level of self-regulation (Eisenberg et al., 1996). In addition, evidence has further suggested the possibility of nonlinear interactions between temperament and context.

By temperament-context interactions, I refer to the same environments having a different influence on individuals with different temperament characteristics, or the same temperament characteristics having a different influence on individuals living in different environments. In looking for temperament-context interactions, it is essential to keep in mind the multiple methodological and statistical problems that limit our ability to detect existing interactions. Such problems include but are not limited to the insensitivity of traditional analytic designs to interaction effects, the likelihood that interactions will appear in only certain segments of a given population group, and the need for highly sensitive measures to detect interaction effects (McClelland & Judd, 1993; Wachs & Plomin, 1991).

Given the multiple methodological and statistical problems that limit our ability to detect interactions, it is remarkable that there is a consistent body of evidence showing context by temperament interactions. One set of findings has shown how the impact of the environment can be moderated by individual differences in temperament (Wachs, 1992). An excellent example of this type of interaction is seen in studies indicating that the impact on development of environmental stressors, such as home chaos (Wachs, 1987b; Wachs & Gandour, 1883), maternal anger (Crockenberg, 1987), maternal unavailability (Lumley, Ables, Melamed, Pistone, & Johnson, 1990), disorganized attachment (as a marker for problematical parent-child relations; Stams, Juffer, & van Ijsendoorn, 2002), or divorce (Hetherington, 1989), is significantly greater for difficult temperament children than for children with easy temperaments. For example, relations between adolescents' level of substance abuse and environmental risk factors such as parent-child conflict or peer or parental substance abuse were significantly stronger for adolescents with a difficult temperament (Wills et al., 2001). Interestingly, the fact that having a difficult temperament is likely to increase the child's sensitivity to environmental risk factors does not negate the possibility that difficult temperament children may also be more sensitive to environmental protective factors as well. Evidence supporting this latter hypothesis is found in several studies. Feldman et al. (1999) have reported stronger relations between mother-infant synchrony in infancy and child compliance and ability to tolerate delay at two years of age for more difficult than for less difficult infants.

The other major temperament dimension that has been shown to interact with contextual characteristics is activity level. Results from several studies have indicated that higher levels of stimulation were needed to facilitate the development of low active infants but that the same levels of stimulation either were unrelated to or even inhibited the development of infants with higher activity levels (Gandour, 1989; Schaffer, 1966). For example, higher levels of parent object mediation (e.g., naming objects) were associated with higher levels of object mastery motivation in low active 12-month-old infants, but tended to inhibit mastery motivation in more active 12-month-olds (Wachs, 1987b).

Another aspect of context-temperament interaction occurs when the developmental consequences of individual differences in temperament are moderated by characteristics of the individual's psychosocial environment. One example of this second type of interaction is seen in the data presented by Guerin et al. (2003), showing how the link between difficult temperament in infancy and externalizing problems during the school years was significantly attenuated when difficult temperament infants were reared in a low conflict family environment (Guerin et al., 2003).

A further example of this type of interaction is seen in a series of studies by Kochanska (1993, 1995, 1997) showing how inhibited children are more likely to develop internal regulation mechanisms if their parents use gentle discipline than if they use more arousing forms of discipline. A similar set of findings has documented how relations between children's early resistance to parental control and later externalizing problems will vary as a function of the level of maternal control, with highly resistant children being less likely to show later externalizing problems when their mothers were high in control (Bates, Pettit, Dodge, & Ridge, 1997).

The pattern of findings presented in this final section shows how the contributions of temperament to development do not necessarily reflect the operation of temperament in isolation but, rather, can vary as a function of contributions from another domain; namely, characteristics of the child's environment. Obviously the converse also holds; namely, that we should not necessarily assume environmental main effects without also considering the temperamental characteristics of the individual on whom the environment impinges.


Our understanding of both the nature of children's development and the factors influencing variability in children's development has benefited greatly from research and theorizing on the role played by individual differences in temperament. As a result of this research and theorizing, we have gained a greater understanding of the contributions that the individual makes to his or her own development as well as the dimensions of temperament, such as self-regulation and reactivity that are fundamental to understanding these individual contributions. Of necessity, much of our past and present research in this area has focused primarily on temperament as a single, main effect predictor or outcome variable. This narrow focus is not unique to studies of temperament. Early studies in behavioral genetics focused essentially on demonstrating that genetic influences were relevant for an understanding of behavioral developmental variability; it is only recently that behavior genetic researchers have focused on process questions such as how genetic and nongenetic influences combine to impact on behavioral developmental variability (e.g., Plomin, 1994). It seems clear that we have reached a similar point in regard to temperament. We have established beyond doubt the relevance of temperament, both as an independent field of study and as a major contributor to individual behavioral and developmental variability. The time is now ripe to broaden the range of both our research and theorizing by looking at how temperament fits into a larger system of multiple influences on development and how temperament, in combination with other developmental influences, relates to individual differences in behavior and development. Focusing on temperament as part of a larger system of multiple developmental influences will allow us to go beyond temperament, while not losing our understanding of the unique role that temperament plays in development.

An example of such a system is shown in Figure 2.2, which illustrates patterns of bi-directional influences between temperament and nontemperament factors. One of the major implications to be drawn from Figure 2.2 is that in order to understand how temperament relates to development, we need to understand how temperament is related to biological, bio-social, and contextual influences on behavioral development. Viewing temperament as part of a larger system of multiple linked influences increases the likelihood of being able both to resolve longstanding issues in this field, as well as identifying important future research directions.

Ecomap Examples

Strong influence

Postulated but not yet verified influence Bi-directional influence

Strong influence

Postulated but not yet verified influence Bi-directional influence

Figure 2.2 Temperament as part of a system of developmental influences. It is important to keep in mind that many of the nontemperament influences pictured in this figure are themselves linked. For example, the social interpersonal rearing environment covaries with genotype, nutritional status, culture, and environmental chaos; central nervous system (CNS) structure covaries with both biomedical and nutritional status which, in turn, covary with each other.

Within the systems framework described above three longstanding issues seem to be of particular salience. First, the increasing emphasis on self-regulation as a major domain of temperament increases the need to identify the nature of links between the construct of temperament and constructs such as attentional control, which traditionally have been viewed in cognitive terms but are now being viewed as an important component of self-regulation (Rothbart et al., 2000). Are there certain aspects of attentional control that are uniquely temperament-like in nature and different from attentional control as described by cognitive theorists, or is attentional control a cognitive process that has links with and influences individual differences in temperament? Within a systems framework, one way to deal with this question is further study on the neural underpinnings of temperament constructs such as self-regulation and cognitive constructs such as attentional control. Unique neural substrates would support the former explanation while distinct but linked substrates would support the latter explanation. Answers to this question are becoming increasingly likely, given advances in neural measurement techniques of both cognitive and temperament functions (Posner et al., 2001). A second longstanding problem is the issue of the modest levels of interparent agreement on characteristics of their child's temperament. Within a systems framework one way of approaching this question is to do detailed studies of parent-child interactions to determine if differential treatment of infants by mothers and fathers leads to the child displaying somewhat different temperament patterns for each parent. This question is directly linked to a third longstanding issue, namely that of reactive covariance. To what degree do individual differences in child temperament translate into individual differences in patterns of parent-child relations, and under what conditions is reactive covariance between child temperament and parent-child relationship patterns attenuated or accentuated. Satisfactory resolution of these issues will be illuminated in part by a more detailed focus on both child temperament (extreme versus nonextreme for a given dimension) and adult temperament (the degree of "fit" between child and parent temperament characteristics. However, illumination will also require not only a more detailed analysis of the family microenvironment (parent and child behavior patterns), but also an analysis of the role played by larger aspects of the context that can impact upon parent-child relationships, such as outside stresses and supports that impact upon the family.

Similar conclusions can also be made with regard to future directions in temperament research. Given both methodological advances and increasing knowledge it is clear that studies linking individual differences in temperament to neural processes will be an important future direction. However, with increasing knowledge on the nature of brain plasticity (e.g., Nelson, 1999) it becomes increasingly important to ask what and how extrinsic factors influence those neural and biochemical brain processes that underlie individual differences in temperament. If there are experience driven changes in neural structure or brain chemistry that result in differential temperament patterns, what are these experiences? Some studies have begun to deal with this issue (e.g., Gunnar, 2000), but far more needs to be known. Further, if we look at the child's context as encompassing both a psychosocial component and a biological component (Wachs, 2003), it also becomes important to focus on the links between brain processes, temperament, and elements of the biological context such as the child's nutritional status and biomedical history.

In addition to investigations of links between context, brain, and temperament, two other important research directions emerge when we view temperament within a systems framework. While both active covariance and temperament-environment interactions have been noted earlier in this chapter as important topics, remarkably little has been done in either area. We know far too little about the degree of influence individual differences in temperament have upon niche selection, what other factors besides temperament moderate links between individual temperament and niche selection or the consequences for the subsequent development of temperament of a child with a certain temperament selecting into a specific niche. Similarly, while we have begun to identify replicable temperament-context interactions, we know all too little about critical questions such as whether difficult children are equally sensitive to protective and risk factors in the environment or are primarily sensitive to environmental risk factors. Our ability to answer such questions within a systems framework will illuminate not only the nature and developmental contributions of individual differences in temperament, but also the nature of the developmental process itself.


1. Following Rothbart & Bates (1998) I am assuming that differences among individuals in the specific dimensions and domains of temperament are quantitative in nature, with individuals being distributed along a continuum. However, it is important to note that there continues to be controversy on the issue of whether individual differences in temperament are best viewed as qualitative or quantitative in nature. For those espousing a qualitative viewpoint, individuals with different temperament patterns are best conceived as falling into different categorical groupings (Woodward et al., 2000).

2. A critical distinction is between stability (maintenance of rank order on a trait for a population of individuals, traditionally assessed by trait correlations over time) versus continuity (change in the level of the trait traditionally assessed by mean changes in a trait over time) (McCall, 1986). Clearly, the level of temperament traits changes over time (Eaton, 1994; Worobey & Blajda, 1989). However, it is entirely possible for there to be changes in a trait over time (discontinuity), while stability (rank order of individuals) is still maintained. For the present discussion, I will be focusing on stability.

3. The prediction of only modest stability is further reinforced by changes in our knowledge of gene action. While we traditionally think of gene systems as being switched on prenatally and continuing to operate unchanged throughout the life span, this traditional picture clearly is oversimplified. More recent models of gene action have illustrated how different gene systems can turn on or turn off at different points of development (Plomin, DeFries, McClearn, & Rutter, 1997). If gene systems underlying specific dimensions of temperament change across the life span, again we would not necessarily expect a high degree of stability for those dimensions of temperament that are coded by such a gene system.


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