A new study claims to have found early signs of later criminal behavior (as well as substance abuse and money management issues, among others) in children as young as 3-years-old. The deciding factor? Low self-control.
According to lead researcher Dr. Terrie Moffitt:
Mastering self-control and managing impulses are some of the earliest demands that society places on children … Our study shows, for the first time, that willpower as a child really does influence your chances of a healthy and wealthy adulthood.
Moffitt and her research team analyzed test data from 1,000 children born between April 1972 and March 1973 in New Zealand, as well as a separate group of 500 fraternal twins in the U.K. Throughout their childhood, these kids went through a series of physical tests and interviews.
Self-control, in particular, was judged by teachers, parents, objective observers, and the children themselves. Testers were looking for signs of low frustration tolerance, lack of persistence in reaching goals, being hyper-active, and acting without thinking.
The researchers then caught up with these same test subjects at age 32. The results? The children found to have lowered inhibitions were more likely to grow up to be convicted of a crime, be single parents, dependent on drugs or alcohol, or struggling financially. They were also at higher risk of adult health problems like sexually transmitted diseases, gum disease, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and obesity.
Not only that, but in the British fraternal twin study, “the sibling with lower self-control scores at age 5 was more likely to start smoking, to earn bad grades in school, and to show antisocial behaviors at age 12, supporting the notion that self-control isn’t simply dependent on family situation.”
This isn’t the first study that’s found self-control to be vital in behavior development. Anyone who’s taken Psychology 101 might remember the famous marshmallow study. A series of squirmy toddlers are presented with a marshmallow now and the promise of a second marshmallow later, if they’re willing to wait for the researcher to go get it. The kids who waited were found to get better grades moving forward and score substantially better on the SAT. (Watch the adorable video below.)
But this is the first time that a study has indicated such a diverse range of effects with real life consequences. Jay Belsky, a professor at UC Davis, says this is the first time he’s seen self control directly affecting such “a diverse array of long-term, real-world developmental outcomes,” such as health or the ability to stay in a relationship or keep finances in check.”
If you’re worried about your child, rest assured that researchers also found that as kids get older, self-control could be learned. The resulting paper encourages programs “aimed at improving self-control in kids or teens could help improve rates of disease, crime, and welfare dependency.”
“The decisive answer is not in yet, and more programs should be designed, and evaluated rigorously,” the researchers concluded.