Self-control—the ability to regulate our attention, emotions and behaviors—emerges in childhood and grows throughout life, but the skill varies widely among individuals. Past studies have reported that self-control is partially inherited and partially learned and that those with less self-control are more likely to be unemployed, en­gage in unhealthy behaviors such as overeating, and live a shorter life. A recent study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA tying childhood self-control to health and well-being in adulthood suggests that everyone, not just those most lacking the skill, would benefit from a self-control boost.

Psychologist Terrie E. Moffitt of Duke University and her team focused on the self-control of a group of 1,037 children born in 1972 and 1973 in Dunedin, New Zealand. The investigators observed the children and took reports from parents and teachers every two years from the ages of three to 11. They evaluated the kids’ attention, persistence and impulsiveness in a variety of settings to determine each child’s level of self-control. Finally, when these New Zea­landers reached the age of 32, the researchers assessed their health, financial stability and court records.

The study found that children with lower self-control were more likely as adults to have poor health, be single parents, depend on drugs or alcohol, have difficulties with money and possess a criminal record.

In addition to surveying and ruling out intelligence and socioeconomic status as possible explanations, the team explored whether differences in upbringing could play a role. To test this idea, the Duke researchers turned to 509 pairs of British twins born in 1994 and 1995. The team appraised the twins’ self-control at age five. The sibling who had less self-control was more likely to begin smoking, behave badly and struggle in school at age 12.

Moffitt notes that within the Dunedin group, the more self-control a child had, the better off he or she was as an adult. “Even children who are above average on self-control could have improved life outcomes if they increase their self-control skills,” Moffitt says. Programs that teach self-control—in school set­tings, for example—are effective. Thus, the Duke team posits, intervening during child­hood could give all kids a better future. [For a related story on the link between intelligence and health risks, see “Outsmarting Mortality.”]

Editor's note: This article was printed with the title, "Where There's a Will...."