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Health Agencies Update
June 23/30, 2020

Cautious and Fearful Infants Grow Into Cautious and Fearful Adults

JAMA. 2020;323(24):2452. doi:10.1001/jama.2020.9623

Infants’ temperament can help predict who they’ll become as young adults, suggests a recent study from researchers at the National Institute of Mental Health, the University of Maryland, and the Catholic University of America.

Responding to new situations with caution and fear early in life predicts having a more reserved, introverted personality in adulthood, according to recent research.


To date, little research has explored the relationship between child temperament and the course life takes into adulthood; previous studies have relied on mothers’ reports and other limited methods for assessing temperament, according to the authors.

The investigators followed up 165 infants over 3 decades to see whether behavioral inhibition—a temperament characterized by cautious and fearful behaviors in response to unfamiliar situations—shaped long-term personality, social relationships, vocation or education, and mental health in adulthood.

The authors assessed the infants’ temperament by observing them at age 14 months, nearly 2 years earlier than previously published studies. At age 15 years, the children were evaluated to obtain neurophysiological data to assess error-related negativity, a decline in the electrical signal from the brain that follows incorrect responses on computerized tasks. This measure reflects how sensitive people are to making mistakes. At age 26 years, study participants completed questionnaires that assessed personality, psychopathology, and sociodemographic factors.

Compared with those who had lower levels, young adults who had higher levels of behavioral inhibition in infancy were more reserved and introverted and did not function as well socially.

Adults who were more inhibited behaviorally in infancy and had greater error-related negativity at age 15 years were more likely to have higher levels of internalizing psychopathology, such as depression and anxiety. However, behavioral inhibition was not associated with externalizing psychopathology, such as antisocial behavior and substance use disorders, education and employment achievement, or the likelihood of being engaged or married.