Effortful control: The uber temperament?

(German readers, please forgive the use of uber without an umlaut.  I don’t know how to do it in this program).

Do the various temperaments stand on their own?  is it possible that there is a still higher regulator?  In 1985, Mary Rothbart, a highly respected developmental psychologist, suggested that there was such a factor and named it “Effortful Control”.*  Effortful control is composed of a number of related abilities that aid us in regulating our reactions, focusing attention, intentionally approaching (or not) situations and people,  inhibiting our own impulses where this seems wise, and even calming or distracting ourselves where this seems wise.  It adds up to a complex system of self-regulation.  Rothbart comments “Effortful control as a temperamental dimension in itself…refers to superordinate self-regulatory systems that can assert control over the reactive and self-regulatory processes of other temperament systems, so that an analogy to “effort” or “will” is appropriate….Operationally, Effortful Control is reflected in individual differences in the ability to voluntarily sustain focus on a task, to voluntarily shift attention from one task to another, to voluntarily initiate action, and to voluntarily inhibit action”.

Effortful control emerged as one of three factors in a study that was done on the Children’s Behavioral Questionnaire in 2001.  What they found was a very general factor (effortful control) and two more specific factors with multiple subfactors.  Of these two, one was labeled Extraversion/Surgency and included such subfactors as high activity, smilling and laughing, impulsivity, and positive anticipation.  The other was labeled Negative Affectivity and included fear, anger, sadness, discomfort and a lack of soothability.  These two factors relate to and resemble three of the Big Five factors–Extraversion, Neuroticism and Conscientiousness.  (Openness was not really measured in this study, and Agreeableness had some complex relationships).**  The new and important conclusion from this study was that effortful control was not simply another factor, but a superordinate one.  That is, it helped to regulate the outcomes of the other factors.  Rothbart et al. had this important comment about this :  “What does effortful control mean for temperament and development?  It means that unlike early theoretical models of temperament that emphasized how people are moved by the positive and negative emotions or level of arousal, people are not always as the mercy of affect.  Using effortful control, people can more flexibly approach situations they fear, and inhibit actions they desire.   The efficiency of control, however, will depend on the strength of the emotional processes against which effort is exerted.”**

For effortful control, the marshmallow study that we looked at some weeks ago is a nice example of this system in action.  Here the desire to eat one marshmallow was inhibited (by the toughest little four year olds) in favor of waiting 15 minutes and gaining two marshmallows.  Very technically, this is described as “the ability to inhibit a dominant response to perform a subdominant response.”  In the marshmallow scenario, the dominant response is “eat it now” and the subdominant is “wait for two”.  This same ability, however, can be seen in tasks that are less obviously motivated by immediate needs and wishes.  A good laboratory example is the Stroop Test.  Here, a subject is presented with color words (red, green, blue) that in some conditions are presented in the color that the word stands for, and in others are printed in a conflicting color (red printed in blue for example).  Subjects are asked to read the words rapidly or name the colors rapidly.  Where word and color conflict, effort is visible in the  longer time required to give the right response when word and color conflict.  Thus, as an observable concept, effortful control is visible to both everyday experience and laboratory measurement.

In developing this concept, Rothbart and her colleagues have approached the issue from many sides.  Focusing on children, they have demonstrated that effortful control is an ability that we all have in varying degrees, but develop very gradually.  The various components, such as ability to focus attention and/or inhibit voluntarily inhibit a behavior, are basically just not there in the infant.  Directed attention begins to show up between 9 months and a year or more (varying with the child), and inhibiting voluntary behavior on command (not touching that glass vase when mama says “no”) begins somewhere around here also.  That this inhibition has little to do as yet with “self” control is obvious from the fact that it disappears the moment mom looks away!  When the child can decide on her own that the right answer is “no” there has been an enormous amount of development in both brain and organized mind.  At three to four you will begin to see it, but even here it may be accompanied by a speech reminder as the child tells herself “mama says no about that”.

Around two and a half, children begin to show this ability in simple laboratory tasks. such as waiting (briefly) for candy beneath a transparent cup, or on request, drawing a line more slowly.  As these abilities emerge, the individual child is quite consistent  in ability accross the tasks( whether good or bad), and in future improvements in this, but children differ considerably from one another.  At about 3 1/2 to 4 years children develop the ability to play an interesting variant of “Simon Says”.  They first learn to do whatever Simon says (and Simon may be a stuffed bear or elephant) and then must learn to do what Simon as the bear says and not do what Simon as the elephant says.  For a three year old this is absolutely hopeless.  As they come to about 3 1/2 this may become possible some of the time, but, for example, when the command is something like “clap your hands” you may find a child trying to sit on a hand to keep it from clapping!  At four the problem is simply gone!  So–effortful control has a clear developmental pattern.

Another approach has been measuring brain activity while various conflict tasks are being done.  This has been measured both for children of various ages, and adults.  It is very clear that the same general brain areas, as a system, are activated by these tasks in both children and adults.  The main difference is that much wider areas are activated in children, and these narrow down to a much more efficient pattern in adults.  These areas form a pattern that is specific to this type of task, and overlies what are more broadly called the executive regions of the briain–those involved not  only in self-control, but in such related functions as long-range planning.  Effortful control involves the frontal cortex and an area known as the anterior cingulate gyrus, and so do the larger executive functions.  So–effortful control has a specific pattern of brain activation that is related to our most complex brain functions.

Finally, there are also genetic findings that further support the concept of a system for effortful control.  In 2001 a study of effortful control in twins found high heritability (.89) for performance on effortful control tasks.  Researchers then went on to look for specific genes that twin pairs high in effortful control (or low in effortful control) had in common.  Two such genes were found.  One was particularly interesting because in certain forms it was associated with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and sensation seeking (clearly the opposite of high effortful control).  This was a gene involved in the dopamine transmitter system in the brain, which has several differing forms (alleles).  Better performance on the effortful control tasks proved to be related to a form of the gene that is not involved in hyperactivity, and poorer performance was related to this gene.  So there is meaningful genetic support for effortful control.

Do all those findings make effortful control an uber temperament factor? Well, it is a very interesting idea, and it would help explain MBTI users who find that some of their preferences are perpetually on the borderline, or perpetually just shifting sides.  Lets just play with Judging/Perceiving for the moment.  A perceiver who experiences many problems as a result of appointments missed, tasks undone etc. but who is strong in effortful control, might slowly develop early warning of trouble, and habits of control that will smooth this out.  He/she would not have lost the perceiver preference, but in action might be more Judger like.  In answering a temperament question, then, answers might be different depending on whether the focus was on preference or actual behavior.  At least, it is an interesting idea to play with!


*Ahadi, S. A. et al. (1994)  Temperament, Development, and the Big Five.  In C. F. Halverson Jr. et al. (Eds.)  The developing Structure of Temperament and Personality from Infancy to Adulthood.  Hillsdale NJ:  Erlbaum.

**Rothbart, M. K. et al. (2000).  Stability of temperament in childhood:  Laboratory infant assessment to parent report at seven years.  In V. J. Molfese & D. L. Molfee (Eds), Temperament and personality development across the lifespan.  Hillsdae NJ:  Erlbaum

***Rueda, M. R., Rothbart, M. K. et al. (2005).  Training, maturation and genetic influences on the development of executive attention.  PNAS 102 (41) 14931-14936.

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6 Responses to Effortful control: The uber temperament?

  1. INTJ says:

    This is entirely my own opinion, but I think of effortful control as being the executive at the top, and if strong, is highly results oriented. In a sense it might be free of preference values. Let’s say you are an MBTI Perceiver or a Big Five low conscientious person. If no opposing forces occur you just go your merry grasshopper way. But if your preference constantly produces problems–other people angry, loss of job, etc. and if your effortful control is pretty good, this data is taken in and efforts (no pun intended) are made to stretch toward more conscientiousness, more Judgerness. Something like that, anyhow! Make any sense?

  2. Lars says:

    Very interesting, thanks for the article.

    I’d like to know to what degree Conscientiousness and Effortful Control overlap, but my search turned up no studies or clear results for that, apart from a few theories.

    That leads to the question: can someone be strong in Effortful Control but low in Conscientiousness?

    However, it is clear how Effortful Control influences other factors or temperaments. I know it myself for Extraversion and many Introverts and especially shy people will know this, too: as an introvert it often needs some control of will to get extraverted, show off yourself in an extraverted manner (for example dancing), talk to someone, tell something or come out with something.

    I wager its the same will control for Extraverts to become quiet, reserved and similar things.

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