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Friday, April 15, 2011

Self-control Predicts Health, Wealth and Public Safety

The scientific community is now coming to grips with how central self-control is to many important life outcomes. The need to delay gratification, regulate impulses, and modulate emotional expression is the earliest demand that society makes on children, and success at many life tasks depends critically on children’s mastery of such self-control.

Economists are now drawing attention to individual differences in self-control as a key consideration for policy-makers who seek to enhance the physical and financial health of the population and reduce the crime rate.

A recent study published in PNAS by Moffit and colleagues demonstrates very convincingly the role that self control plays not only in better cognitive and social outcomes in adolescence, but also in many other factors and into adulthood. The study shows that childhood self-control predicts physical health, substance dependence, personal finances, and criminal offending outcomes, following a gradient of self-control.

Moffit and his colleagues followed 1,000 children for 30 years, examining the effect of early self-control on health, wealth and public safety. Controlling for socioeconomic status and IQ, they show that individuals with lower self-control experienced negative outcomes in all three areas, with greater rates of health issues like sexually transmitted infections, substance dependence, financial problems including poor credit and lack of savings, single-parent child-rearing, and even crime. These results show that self-control can have a deep influence on a wide range of activities.

To the extent that self-control influences outcomes as disparate as health, wealth, and crime, enhancing it could have broad benefits. And there is some good news: if we can find a way to improve self-control, maybe we could do better.

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