Jerome Kagan

An American psychologist who studied the role of physiology in psychological development.

Jerome Kagan is one of the major developmental biologists of the twentieth century. He was a pioneer in reintroducing physiology as a determinate of psychological characteristics. The Daniel and Amy Starch Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, Kagan won numerous awards, including the Hofheimer Prize of the American Psychiatric Association (1963) and the G. Stanley Hall Award of the American Psychological Association (APA) in 1994. He served on numerous committees of the National Academy of Sciences, as well as the President's Science Advisory Committee and the Social Science Research Council.

Kagan was born in Newark, New Jersey, in 1929, the son of Joseph and Myrtle (Liebermann) Kagan. His father was a businessman. Kagan graduated from Rutgers University in New Jersey in 1950 with a B.S. degree. In 1951 he married Cele Katzman; the couple had one daughter. Kagan earned his master's degree from Harvard University and his Ph.D. from Yale University in 1954 and spent one year as an instructor in psychology at Ohio State University. Following two years as a psychologist at the U.S. Army Hospital at West Point, Kagan joined the Fels Research Institute in Yellow Springs, Ohio, as a research associate. In 1959, he became chairman of the Department of Psychology there.

Since the late 1920s, scientists at Fels had been studying middle-class children from infancy through adolescence in order to better understand human development. At that time, most psychologists believed that personal characteristics were determined by environmental factors rather than by inheritance and that personality development occurred during childhood. Kagan's early research at Fels focused on the degree to which individual personality traits carried through from infancy and childhood to adolescence and beyond. On reexamining some of the Fels subjects as adults, Kagan and Howard Moss did not find strong support for the maintenance of behavioral characteristics such as aggression, dominance, competitiveness, and dependence. However, they found that a small group who had been very fearful as toddlers had retained aspects of what they called behavioral inhibition as adults. In 1962, Kagan and Moss published their landmark book Birth to Maturity.

Questions environmental determinism

In 1964, Kagan moved to Harvard University. After spending a year doing fieldwork in a small native Guatemalan village, he began to examine the influence of biological factors on development and developmental variation in children. Kagan discovered that the development of memory skills, the understanding of symbolism, a sense of morality, and self-awareness arise in a particular order during the first two years of life. He concluded that children are adaptable and that their biology promotes a regular developmental progression even under unfavorable circumstances. In 1984 he published The Nature of the Child, which he revised in 1994. In this book, Kagan argued that biology and environment were both important factors in development, and he questioned the widespread belief that adult personality was determined by childhood experience alone.

Questions continuity of development and parental influences

In his book Three Seductive Ideas (1998), Kagan argued against infant determinism, the widespread belief that experiences and parenting during the first three years of a child's life are the most important determinants of adult personality. To Kagan, this assumption is unproven and perhaps unprovable. He also argued against the common belief that development is a continuous process from infancy to adulthood. Rather, he asserted that it is discontinuous process.

Kagan's many writings include Understanding Children: Behavior, Motives, and Thought (1971), Growth of the Child (1978), The Second Year: The Emergence of Self-Awareness (1981), and a number of cross-cultural studies of child development. He coauthored numerous editions of a widely used introductory psychology text. In 1982, he was awarded the Wilbur Lucius Cross Medal from Yale University. He also was a recipient of the APA's Distinguished Scientist Award. As of 2015 Kagan was on the editorial board of the journals Child Development and Devel-opmental Psychology and was active in numerous professional organizations.

See also Developmental psychology; Personality psychology.



Kagan, Jerome. The Human Spark: The Science of Human Development. New York: Basic Books, 2013.

Kagan, Jerome. The Tempermental Thread: How Genes, Culture, Time, and Luck Make us Who We Are. New York: Dana Press, 2010.

Kagan, Jerome. Psychology's Ghosts: The Crisis in the Profession and the Way Back. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012.

McAdams, Dan. The Art and Science of Personality Development. New York: The Guilford Press, 2015.


Hardway, Christina, Kagan, Jerome, Snidman, Nancy, and Pincus, Donna.“Infant Reactivity as a Predictor of Child Anxiety, Social Ease, and Parenting Behavior in Middle Childhood.” Journal of Psychopathology and Behavioral Assessment 24, no. 4 (December 2013): 531–39.

Kagan, Jerome.“Contextualizing Experience.” Develop-mental Review 33, no. 3 (September 2013): 273–78.