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Self-control, conscientiousness, grit, emotion regulation, willpower - whatever word you use, it's sure important to have it

(today's & the next self-control blog post have been combined and are downloadable as either a Word doc or a PDF handout). 

Professor Terrie Moffitt and colleagues' recent paper "A gradient of childhood self-control predicts health, wealth, and public safety" is another hammer blow highlighting the crucial importance of self-control for a great swathe of health & wellbeing outcomes.  The paper's abstract reads "Policy-makers are considering large-scale programs aimed at self-control to improve citizens' health and wealth and reduce crime. Experimental and economic studies suggest such programs could reap benefits. Yet, is self-control important for the health, wealth, and public safety of the population? Following a cohort of 1,000 children from birth to the age of 32 y, we show that childhood self-control predicts physical health, substance dependence, personal finances, and criminal offending outcomes, following a gradient of self-control. Effects of children's self-control could be disentangled from their intelligence and social class as well as from mistakes they made as adolescents. In another cohort of 500 sibling-pairs, the sibling with lower self-control had poorer outcomes, despite shared family background. Interventions addressing self-control might reduce a panoply of societal costs, save taxpayers money, and promote prosperity".

The excellent British Psychological Society Research Digest commented on 17th May "Psychologists have provided a dramatic demonstration of how a person's childhood levels of self-control are linked with outcomes later on in their life. This is important because unlike other traits that are associated with life outcomes - including cleverness, tallness, and beauty - lots of research suggests that self-control is readily amenable to improvement through training. Terrie Moffitt and her team assessed the self-control of 1000 New Zealand children at the ages of 3, 5, 7, 9 and 11 and then interviewed them when they'd reached the age of 32. The striking finding was that the study participants with poor childhood self-control were more likely in adulthood to have children of their own in a one-parent situation, more likely to have credit and health problems and more likely to have been convicted of a criminal offence, even after factoring out the effects of intelligence and social class ... To flesh out some examples, the top fifth of the sample in terms of childhood self-control had rates of serious adult health problems at 11 per cent versus 27 per cent for the bottom fifth of the sample. The crime rates in adulthood were 13 per cent for those high in childhood self-control versus 43 per cent for those with low childhood self-control. The relationship with adult outcomes held across the full-range of childhood self-control scores. In other words, there doesn't appear to be a level of self-control beyond which no more benefits are gleaned ... Because the link between childhood self-control and adult outcomes held across the full range of self-control scores, the researchers further recommended introducing universal, rather than targeted, intervention programmes - doing so would help reduce stigma, they said, and could provide benefits even to those who already score highly in self-control. This study chimes with Walter Mischel's findings when he tracked down the participants from his classic marshmallow research. Those young children who were better able to resist the allure of a cookie or marshmallow grew into teenagers with fewer disciplinary problems and better school results."

Happily this very important Moffitt et al article is freely readable in full text.  See too helpful diagrams/slides illustrating the study's key outcomes.  There is also a good deal of further useful detail accessible on Moffitt and Caspi's excellent joint website.  I'll write again about self-control soon - see "Self-control ... more on the many benefits".  This theme links well too with the blog post I wrote last month on "Goal setting & goal achievement"

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Pretty amazing and totally empirically validating of ancient yogic philosophy's distinction between preya (immediate gratification) and shreya (long-term benefit). See the Katha Upanishad.

Only thing missing is inclusion of the results of research showing how to to teach self-control/grit/self-regulation most effectively to young children. The marshmellow test for two year olds predicted their later life performance better than their IQ, parents' socio-economic status, etc.

So it is better to start young. The question is what is the best way to teach self-control and minimize adverse impacts (emotional numbing and repression).

Regards, Fred Clarke, Berkeley, California


Thanks, Fred!  Good to hear from you.  Yes, I find it pretty amazing stuff too (although the marshmallow test was mainly with 4 year olds as I understand it).  As for emotional numbing and repression, point taken but see, for example, the post last month on goal setting & goal achievement.  One important aspect may well involve helping people identify more autonomous, value-driven goals.  All best wishes, James