Children with poor self-control have worse health and other outcomes as adults

February 4, 2011

Poor self-control in childhood predicts health problems, criminal behavior, and financial difficulties later in life, according to a longitudinal study.

 

Poor self-control in childhood predicts health problems, criminal behavior, and financial difficulties later in life, according to a longitudinal study.

The finding, reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, suggests that childhood and adolescence may be the optimal times to intervene to enhance self-control.

The Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Study followed 1,037 children from birth to age 32. Self-control was assessed through reports by teachers, parents, and the children themselves during the first decade of life. After controlling for social class and IQ score, children with low self-control were more likely at age 32 to:

• Have an elevated risk of substance dependence;

• Have more money management and credit problems;

• Be convicted of a criminal offense;

• Have offspring reared in 1-parent households;

• Have worse health (as ascertained by the physical health index).

As adolescents, children with poor self-control were more likely to have harmful lifestyles, such as an increased propensity to smoke, leaving school early, and becoming teenage parents.

The association between poor self-control and worse health, less wealth, and more crime as adults remained even after removing those children with the least self-control from the analysis, which demonstrates that self-control effects operate throughout the distribution.

The study did not test the effect of an intervention to improve self-control, but the researchers believe that their data are consistent with a “one-two punch” of intervention timed during both early childhood and adolescence.

Because the association between self-control and later health, wealth, and public safety followed a gradient across the full distribution of self-control, universal application of programs to enhance self-control may produce widespread benefit while avoiding the stigma attached to individual attention, researchers said.

Moffitt TE, Arseneault L, Belsky D, et al. A gradient of childhood self-control predicts health, wealth, and public safety. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA. January 24, 2011. Epub ahead of print.