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A conversation with Daniel Kopala-Sibley

An interview

We recently chatted with Daniel Kopala-Sibley about the article, "The stability of temperament from early childhood to early adolescence: A multi-method, multi-informant examination", which recently appeared in the March/April issue of the European Journal of Personality. Daniel currently works at the Mathison Centre for Mental Health Research & Education, University of Calgary.

Read on to learn more about the article on the stability of temperament across childhood!

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Q: Hi Daniel, can you tell us a little about what your study is about?

For this study, we followed children to examine their temperamental development across nearly the entire span of childhood; from when they were three years-old until they are about twelve years-old. Temperament can be broadly defined as stable characteristics or tendencies towards certain emotions and behaviors. We are interested in temperament because it is one of the core features of how a person is psychologically. It’s related to risk for mental illness, it influences how we behave in relationships, and it relates to academic and job performance, so understanding how temperament develops naturally across childhood is an important issue. We are interested in its stability because you often hear people talk about “temperamentally difficult” children – or people in general – and implicit to that is the belief that temperament is a fixed, genetic thing that does not change over time; that how your child’s temperament is now is how they are always going to be.

This is by no means the first paper to look at childhood temperament, but we were able to take advantage of having multiple sources of information about the child’s temperament, which gives us a more accurate estimate of how stable temperament is over such a long time period. In a more typical study, you usually have the parents rate the child’s temperament – usually one of the parents and then maybe, depending on the age of the child, the child might rate their own temperament later on. In this study, we were able to integrate mother and father reports. Also at the first timepoint of the study when the children were three years-old, we did laboratory-based observations of the children’s temperament. In these observations, kids went through various tasks that can elicit emotions like sadness, happiness, anxiety, or anger. This was important because these observations aren’t influenced by parents’ own biases. We were able to integrate those with the parents’ reports to provide a stronger measure of these kids’ temperament when they were three years-old. And then, at age twelve, we were able to use kids’ reports, mother reports and father reports, and by pulling out what was shared across those reports, we get a stronger measure of temperament. So in principle, we were able measure temperament at both timepoints as thoroughly as possible.

We looked at three temperament traits. Negative emotionality, which refers to stable tendencies towards feeling angry, fearful, or sad. Positive emotionality refers to tendencies to experience high levels of positive and happy emotions. These children also tend to be more sociable and responsive when good things happen to them.. And we also looked at effortful control, which is another aspect of core temperament. These are kids who are able to delay one impulse in favor of something else that may be less fun. We found that across all three traits, there was modest to moderate stability. What this means is that based on how a child is temperamentally when they are three years-old, we can somewhat predict how they are going to be when they are twelve, but it’s not so stable as to suggest these kids aren’t also changing as well. And that means there is room for parents to influence how kids’ temperaments develop, for example.

So kids who are really high on negative emotionality, they can be prone to things like depression or anxiety. If we think that temperament is fixed or totally stable over time, that would mean that intervening with these kids might not have much of an effect. It means that therapy for the child or working with parents on how they parent their children, might not be very useful. But that there is only modest stability means that there is room for change, and for interventions to work with these kids.

Q: What made you decide to study the stability of temperament?

When I started my career I became interested in why some people are more vulnerable to things like depression and anxiety than other people are. An everyday example: two people, both of whom have something really stressful happen – they lose their job, or they fail an exam – and yet we might see two totally different reactions from them. One person might be really upset, and the other person might not be bothered at all. I became interested in what the difference is between those people, and a big field of research suggests that personality or temperament is an important factor here. For instance, we see that people who are higher on negative emotionality tend to react more strongly to stressful events. I became interested in where temperament stems from, how it changes on its own, and what factors influence how it changes. I’m interested in childhood and adolescence because, as we have shown in our study, there is some stability – that is, some continuity – in temperament, beginning as early as age three. So if we want to understand how people are as adults, I think we need to start early in life. And we can start by looking at people as early as very early childhood, to see where there current personality comes from and how it developed.

Q: Where do you see yourself in the (near) future?

I started a professorship at the University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada in October, 2017, so the big thing for me right now is just starting up my lab and getting my own research going. The paper we’re discussing comes from the Stony Brook [University] temperament study which was run by Dr. Daniel Klein who was the principal investigator on this study, as well as his graduate students.. So I’m still in the process of starting up my own lab now.

My future research is going to look at early adolescents and teenagers, and will be looking at their personality development and how that’s influenced by their relationships with their parents as well as other developmental experiences. I want to try to map adolescent personality development onto how the teenage brain develops, and will also be looking at how personality development relates to risk for mental health issues like depression and anxiety.

Q: If you could go back in time, what would you tell your graduate student self?

That’s a really hard question! I guess I would want to tell my graduate student self that everything was going to be okay and not to worry too much about it. I guess I’d tell myself when things seem really tough or really hard that everything will work out okay and everything is going to be fine in the end.

Q: Do you have any tips or advice for young researchers?

You can write a whole book on that – and people have! – but off the top of my head I think having a good supervisor is probably one of the most important things. Someone’s who’s going to support you through all the stresses of grad school and not make you feel criticized or put down, someone who supports what you want to study and supports you becoming an independent researcher on your own is incredibly important. Second, I would say, try to find a topic that you are personally and intrinsically interested in, but that strikes a balance between what you want to study and what you think other people will find interesting. Because, even if it’s fascinating to you, if no one else cares then no one is going to fund you to do it or publish your research. And the third thing I suppose, is be aware that this is an incredibly rewarding and fulfilling career, but there are also a lot of road bumps and difficulties, and you are under a lot of scrutiny and are going to be dealing with a lot (and constant) criticism and rejection. You have to do your best to let that slide off your back and grow from it. The result is ultimately very rewarding and fulfilling.

Q: Thanks for the chat, Daniel!

Temperament shows modest stability across the span of childhood

A conversation with Martina Hrebickova