Temperament and Borderline Personality Disorder

Female depressed patient sitting on the bed in a hospital ward
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Temperament can be an important factor in the development of borderline personality disorder (BPD). The exact causes of BPD are not known; it is most often thought to be a combination of genetic (nature) and environmental (nurture) factors. Individual temperaments can predispose a person to develop BPD.

What Is Temperament?

Temperament refers to our inborn personality traits, which are genetic in nature.

The different ways infants interact with and react to their environment and experiences are reflective of their temperament, or behavioral style.

Efforts to understand individual differences in personality have occurred throughout history. Despite this, there is no clear consensus as to what the specific temperament traits are called or how they should be categorized. However, there have been some efforts to comprehensively describe temperament; one is the New York Longitudinal Study (NYLS).

New York Longitudinal Study (NYLS)

In 1956, physicians Alexander Thomas and Stella Chess began The New York Longitudinal Study. Involving 185 children over six years, the authors identified nine distinct temperament traits present in every individual at birth. These traits as defined can be helpful in better understanding how personality is impacted by genetic factors (or nature).

According to Thomas and Chess, these traits are areas of behavioral styles found in every individual.

Each temperament listed should be seen as having a range or being a spectrum; some infants are going to be very distractible, others less distractible, and others even less. In the end, there are endless combinations of temperaments, making each infant unique at birth.

Nine Temperament Traits

From The Origin of Personality.

  • Adaptability
    The ease with which a child adapts to changes in his environment
  • Activity Level
    The proportion of active periods to inactive ones
  • Approach/Withdrawal
    The response to a new object or person
  • Distractibility
    The degree to which extraneous stimuli affect behavior
  • Intensity of Reaction
    The energy of response regardless of its quality or direction
  • Quality of Mood
    The amount of friendly, pleasant, joyful behavior as contrasted with unpleasant, unfriendly behavior
  • Persistence/Attention Span
    The amount of time devoted to an activity and the effect of distraction on the activity
  • Regularity/Rhythmicity
    Regularity of hunger, excretion, sleep, and wakefulness
  • Sensory Threshold
    The intensity of stimuli required to evoke a discernible response

Temperament Throughout Development

In general, temperaments exist as they are prior to birth and are a component of an individual’s personality. Although it is thought that temperaments are genetically determined, personalities as a whole are a combination of temperaments and experiences that shape and influence a person’s development.


CHESS, STELLA, M.D., ALEXANDER THOMAS, M.D., AND HERBERT G. BIRCH, M.D., PH.D. The Origin of Personality. Scientific American, pp 102-109. 1970

Peter L. Heineman, 1995. Temperament Theory