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Self-control in childhood predicts success later, study finds

Jan. 24, 2011
Courtesy of PNAS
and World Science staff

A child’s self-con­trol skill­s—such as con­sci­en­tious­ness, self-dis­ci­pline, and per­se­ver­ance—can pre­dict health, wealth, and crim­i­nal his­to­ry in lat­er life, new re­search sug­gests.

These effects held up re­gard­less of the child’s IQ or so­cial class, ac­cord­ing to Avshalom Caspi of Duke Uni­vers­ity in Dur­ham, N.C. and col­leagues, who car­ried out the stu­dy. They com­piled in­forma­t­ion about more than 1,000 par­ti­ci­pants in a Dun­e­din, New Zea­land, sur­vey who were fol­lowed from birth to age 32. 

Draw­ing on reg­u­lar as­sess­ments by teach­ers, par­ents, ob­servers, and the par­ti­ci­pants them­selves, the re­search­ers found that chil­dren who dem­on­strat­ed high lev­els of self-con­trol at ages as young as three were less likely than chil­dren with low self-con­trol to de­vel­op com­mon phys­i­cal health prob­lems, abuse drugs, or ex­pe­ri­ence dif­fi­cul­ties with cred­it and money-management. They were al­so less likely to raise a child in a single-parent house­hold or be con­victed of a crime as adults. 

In a sec­ond sam­ple of 500 non-identical Brit­ish twins, the sib­ling who scored low­er on meas­ures of self-con­trol at age five was more likely than the oth­er to start smok­ing, do poorly in school, and en­gage in an­ti­so­cial be­hav­iors at age 12, the sci­en­tists re­ported. 

But chil­dren whose self-con­trol im­proved dur­ing the study fared bet­ter as adults in meas­ures of health, wealth, and crim­i­nal his­to­ry than was oth­erwise pre­dicted by their in­i­tial child­hood scores. The au­thors sug­gest that early in­ter­ven­tions to im­prove self-con­trol may ben­e­fit chil­dren in all risk cat­e­gories.

The find­ings are re­ported in this week’s early on­line edi­tion of the re­search jour­nal Pro­ceed­ings of the Na­tio­n­al Aca­de­my of Sci­en­ces.


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A child’s self-control skills—such as conscientiousness, self-discipline, and perseverance—can predict health, wealth, and criminal history in later life, new research suggests. The findings held up regardless of the child’s IQ or social class, according to Avshalom Caspi of Duke University in Durham, N.C. and colleagues, who carried out the study. They compiled information about more than 1000 participants in a Dunedin, New Zealand, survey who were followed from birth to age 32. Drawing on regular assessments by teachers, parents, observers, and the participants themselves, the researchers found that children who demonstrated high levels of self-control at ages as young as three were less likely than children with low self-control to develop common physical health problems, abuse drugs, or experience difficulties with credit and money-management. They were also less likely to raise a child in a single-parent household or be convicted of a crime as adults. In a second sample of 500 non-identical British twins, the sibling who scored lower on measures of self-control at age five was more likely than the other to start smoking, do poorly in school, and engage in antisocial behaviors at age 12, the scientists reported. But children whose self-control improved during the study fared better as adults in measures of health, wealth, and criminal history than was otherwise predicted by their initial childhood scores. The authors suggest that early interventions to improve self-control may benefit children across the spectrum. The findings are reported in this week’s early online edition of the research journal PNAS.