Self-Control Can Predict Health, Wealth and Crime?

Neuroscientists have found parts of the brain that regulate it. Geneticists are searching for the genes associated with it. Psychologists are studying how young children develop it. Health researchers report that it’s linked to adult health and mortality. Sociologists find it can predict unemployment and criminal behavior. Economists are investigating how it affects the financial health of a community.

It’s a fascinating area of study, but it isn’t mysterious. It’s something parents, caregivers, teachers deal with on a daily basis. We know it as self-control.

The Importance of Self-Control

Success in life depends on learning self-control. The development of self-control begins in early infancy, with a complex set of skills called emotional regulation skills. These are the foundation of the self-control abilities that appear in the toddler years and beyond, such as delaying gratification, controlling impulses when necessary, and managing emotions in appropriate ways. Early self-control has been linked to income, educational attainment, and social adjustment in adulthood.

The Dunedin Study

A recent study uses data from a unique long-term research project to examine the effects of self-control from early childhood through adulthood. The Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Study followed a group of more than 1,000 people from birth to age 32, collecting a large range of health, economic, and socioeconomic information at frequent intervals.

In 2011, researchers used data from the Dunedin study to determine the importance of early self-control for outcomes in adolescence and adulthood.

While similar research has been done before, most of it was conducted in lab settings, with results that may have limited relevance to the broader world. This study stands out because it examined real-world outcomes from early childhood into adulthood, including data collected by researchers, parents and teachers, and even the subjects themselves.

The study looked at a remarkable variety of outcomes, from obesity and substance abuse to credit problems and unemployment.

Early Self-Control and Later Outcomes

The study discovered four main findings about self-control:

First, a composite measure of self-control as observed throughout childhood was strongly related to a broad spectrum of outcomes in adulthood, including

  • Health outcomes (such as respiratory disease and substance abuse)
  • Economic well-being (including savings and home ownership)
  • Criminal activity (being convicted of a crime by age 32)

Second, although self-control was mostly stable throughout life, subjects whose level of self-control increased from childhood to adolescence showed more positive outcomes.

Third, by looking at the subjects’ behavior during adolescence, researchers saw that children with low self-control were likely to make bad choices as teenagers (like taking up smoking or engaging in risky sexual behaviors), and that these choices effectively trapped them in unhealthy lifestyles.

Fourth, when the composite measure was limited to self-control during only the preschool years (3-5), it still remained a significant predictor of health, wealth and crime in adulthood.

These relationships persisted even after accounting for other relevant variables.

What it means to Memphis and Shelby County

These findings have important implications for public policy. Clearly, self-control early in life matters for later well-being, and improved self-control translates into better outcomes in adulthood. This makes self-control a promising focus for programs designed to improve children’s chances for achievement and success.

Furthermore, the link between early self-control and life-altering decisions in adolescence suggests that it is wiser to intervene in childhood rather than wait until children have already made choices that are difficult to reverse. And finally, the predictive power of self-control as early as the preschool years suggests that the earlier we intervene, the better chances we have of making a difference.

The Dunedin study and similar projects are building a strong case that promoting self-control at the earliest possible stage is the surest way a community can lower crime, reduce government spending, lift more people out of poverty, and increase overall well-being and health. It’s time for Memphis and Shelby County to explore innovative policies that specifically look to foster self-control: they’re likely to be one of the smartest investments our community can make.

Learn more about the Dunedin Study