If you were one of the 1000+ babies born at the Queen Mary Maternity Hospital in Dunedin, New Zealand in 1972-73, chances are you don’t have any secrets.
Those babies (now pushing 40) have grown up as the most scientifically studied group of people in the world. Starting at age 3, and every couple of years since, they’ve had every aspect of their physical and mental health examined and reported on in over 1100 publications. The latest paper to make a splash was on self-control. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the Dunedin study subjects with the lowest self-control as children have the worst health as adults. But what intrigued us was the finding that self-control was also linked to financial health…which is why we went to Duke University last week to interview the study’s associate director, Terri Moffitt, for our story about money tips for tots.
Here’s what was left on the cutting room floor:
Paul Solman: How do you measure self-control in a three year-old?
Terrie Moffitt: The children were brought into the clinic and they stayed for several hours and the staff observed them, and so they rated things such as low frustration tolerance, failing to plan ahead, failing to control their impulses, needing constant supervision by an adult to motivate them, failing to delay gratification. … Then we asked their mothers and their kindergarten teachers to fill out the same checklist so we got an idea of what they were like at home and in kindergarten as well, and then any child who was rated as having self-control problems both in the clinic and at home and at school would be considered in our study to have self-control problems. So most kids get in trouble with self-control or lose their temper, or get off-task, or have trouble waiting from time to time and that’s perfectly normal but in our study we were able to say this is an across-the-board problem that this child has in many situations.
PS: And what do you find with regard to self-control?
TM: Now that they’ve reached their 30s those children with the lowest self-control have difficulty with financial health, that is they have difficulty with managing their money, they’re not saving for retirement, they’re in trouble with debt.
PS: But does it correlate with, for example, their initial socio-economic status?
TM: Self-control…is clearly more important than the socio-economic status of one’s family, that is one’s father’s occupation, the amount of money that one had when growing up, and it’s more important than school grades, academic achievement, and it’s more important than scores on intelligence tests.
PS: So as sure as you can be about almost anything in social science, you’re sure of this?
TM: Fairly certain, yes. We did everything we could to rule out the alternative explanations such as controlling for IQ, social class, parent rearing practices, and the self-control prediction of financial outcomes in midlife held up very strongly, it was quite robust.
One of the things we were able to do was compare 500 pairs of [fraternal] twins in which one member of the pair had very high self-control and one had very low self-control. These twins were of course the same age, they are the same sex, they have the same parents, they grow up in the same family and the same neighborhood and the same community. So everything else about them is the same. And what you see is that the child with the higher self-control had better outcomes and the child with the lower self-control had poorer outcomes despite the fact that they’re siblings and they’re growing up together and sharing everything else.
PS: But it can’t explain why there’s increasing economic inequality, can it? Or can it?
TM: I think the way that the self-control and other psychological traits would work is that the economy has a life of its own that goes up or down according to international monetary forces, but the question for psychologists is when times are bad, who suffers most versus who survives? And so as more socio-economic inequity develops in a country, it’s self-control that explains who rises to the top and who sinks to the bottom.
PS: So does this make you fatalistically depressed, or tremendously encouraged because there’s something we can do about it?
TM: It makes me very excited because we’ve now found something that’s malleable, that can be changed, that does influence midlife outcomes. So we’ve got a target and that means that all we need now is a program that works.
PS: But how do you know it’s malleable?
TM: Self-control is a lot like height. Height is one of the most strongly inherited traits that human beings have and yet when we improve the nutrition of the population everybody gets taller. So you can shift the entire population by an effective intervention.
One of the most effective strategies that I’m aware of is one that uses the weekly giving of allowance or pocket money as an opportunity for parents to teach self-control and model self-control. So rather than just handing the child the money and leaving it at that, the parent hands them a modest amount that has to be managed through the week, sits with the child and takes the time to anticipate what’s going to be coming up next week, what the child would like to do and help them to make choices and understand the limited amount of money they have and if they, for example, buy less ice cream on Monday, they might be able to go to the movies on Friday.
PS: I don’t know the data on this, whether or not allowance has lapsed in America. Certainly when I was a kid we had allowances. I wonder whether or not there’s a correlation between less rigorous giving of allowance in America and loss of self-control.
TM: Possibly…one of the things we know about modern life is that we’re called upon to use self-control much more often now because for example there are sedentary jobs so we need our self-control to force ourselves to exercise. There’s easy access to fast food so we’re called upon every day to use our self-control to eat something healthy instead of something high fat. There are fewer pensions nowadays so we are called upon to save our own money and plan our own retirement. This generation of children is going to live to be on average far beyond 100 years old and that means it’s absolutely essential for every child to learn how to develop self-control skills so that they can avoid dependency, poor health and poverty in old age.
PS: So what’s an example of non-self-control in your case?
TM: I eat whatever is put in front of me.
PS: Even though you’d rather not.
TM: That’s right. Diet and exercise are not for me, but I’m extremely planful and self-controlled in the domains of family, money, finances and my scientific career.
Self-control has different facets to it, different elements, and it may be very domain-specific. And a story that my friends tell about me is that when I was in my 20s I took sky-diving lessons. I jumped out of an airplane, which you would say would be a very sensation-seeking thing. But I made the appointment six months in advance!
PS: So you’re a very planned person.
TM: I’m a very planful, non-self-controlled person.
PS: So maybe it’s not just one trait.
TM: This is a big question for science that no one has answered yet, is self-control an amorphous all encompassing trait that affects every aspect of a person’s life, or is it compartmentalized so that people can have very good self-control in a certain area but poor self-control in another area of life. We just don’t know the answer to that yet.
PS: And what the Dunedin Study is doing is treating it as if it were amorphous like IQ.
TM: So far that’s what we’ve done. Yes.