Liisa Keltikangas-Järvinen


1981 Associate Professor in Psychology

1992 Professor in Psychology, University of Helsinki

2014 Principal Investigator, Institute of Behavioural Sciences, University of Helsinki

Liisa Keltikangas-Järvinen is a pioneer in experimental research on personality and is known for her study of temperament. She has not only published papers on these topics, but has also received awards for her publications from the Finnish Association of Non-fiction Writers and WSOY’s Literature Foundation. She also been awarded the Lauri Jäntti Prize for Non-fiction Writing.

What significance has grants from the Gyllenberg Foundation had with respect to your research?

With the aid of grants from the Gyllenberg Foundation, my colleagues and I have been able to develop to two areas of research. With the use of our first grant in 1982, we established our first experimental laboratory, in which we studied the relationship between personality and the autonomic nervous system under conditions of induced stress. At that time, not much experimental research had been done in the field of traditional psychosomatics. It was enough when a correlation could be established between personality and somatic symptoms. The mechanisms causing this connection were not studied; instead the link was explained by mysticism, how psychological ill-being travels here and there in the body, creating somatic symptoms. We were “beginners” with our laboratory and were not yet able to become financially supported by the Academy of Finland. Thus the decision of the Gyllenberg Foundation to support us was a crucial turning point for us. The other initiative was the decision to participate in research on molecular genetics, in other words, determining the genetic basis of personality. We were able to participate in the first wave of research on this topic at the end of the 1990s. Entering this field of research also required an open-minded sponsor, who believed in ideas rather than in previously gathered evidence. Both of these fields, the relationship between personality and somatic reactions and the genetic basis of personality, later became our group’s primary fields of research. We succeeded to publish some research that others in certain fields continually need to reference. The next step was to study the interaction between genetics and the environment in relation to the development of a person throughout his or her lifespan, especially the role of epigenetics in this development.

What is temperament?

Temperament is the biological basis of personality. It is innate and partially hereditary; it appears early and is stable. The differences between individual temperaments depict innate differences in the function of both the autonomic nervous system and the activity of neurotransmitters, for example, dopamine and serotonin. Temperament is not yet a characteristic of personality; instead it is a tendency or disposition to react to the environment in a certain, individual manner. Upbringing modifies temperament into personality. Temperament does not necessarily lead to a certain type of personality; instead, it depends on how the environment reacts to which characteristic. Temperament has tens of characteristics, such as shyness, inhibition, novelty-seeking, activity, sociability, and distractibility. In the upbringing of a child, it is important to understand his or her temperament so that one can direct that specific child in the best possible way and can also provide him or her with behavioral models for different situations.

How should a child’s temperament be taken into consideration in the school world?

The difference between the school grades of boys and girls is greater in Finland that in the other Western countries. Temperament partly explains this difference. Girls’ way of working, which is regulated by temperament, is more easily rewarded than that of boys, in spite of the fact that it is simply a question of functional style rather than a difference in knowhow. In addition research has shown that shy students easily remain in the shadow of active, outgoing, and bold students and receive different teaching. Such situations are even enhanced for boys.

What is the relationship between temperament and cardiovascular disease?

Temperament runs as a common thread through our research group’s work on the risk factors of cardiovascular disease. Stress is a relevant risk factor for this disease, and innate temperament influences both what a person experiences as stress and how he or she physiologically reacts to stress. A situation can be an exciting challenge for one person and an agonizing experience for another. In other words, temperament affects both a person’s sensitivity to stress and the experienced physiological effects of stress.

A multidisciplinary epidemiological study called ”Cardiovascular Risk in Young Finns” was started in Finland in 1980. This population-based study has monitored the development of cardiovascular risk factors starting with a population-based sample of children and adolescents of six age cohorts. It is the only study worldwide to begin in childhood, the follow-up has thus far lasted into middle age, and the psychological factors have been included since the beginning of the project. This material is absolutely a treasure chest for researchers in many fields. The aforementioned research policies on experimental personality research and the genetic basis of personality have also stemmed from these data. Now we have moved to the next generation, to the children of ”Young Finns”. We can actually call this a fourth generation study. In the first phase, data were collected on both the children, who were the actual subjects of the study, and their parents. In addition, some data were also collected on grandparents. Now the focus is on the subjects’ children, who are also now reaching early adulthood. No such research material is available to psychology researchers elsewhere.

What are your the new research challenges?

The current research group is comprised of 21 persons (4 adjunct professors, 5 senior researchers, 8 post-graduate students, and 4 research assistants). The core of the research continues to be personality and cardiovascular disease. In addition to studying the risk factors associated with personality, the development of ’’normal” personality, the genetic basis of personality, and the interrelation between inheritance and the environment in relation to personality are also being focused on. Such topics as the development of depression over a person’s lifespan and social marginalization over generations are also being studied.