The Dunedin Study: The Vital Importance of “Self Control” in creating Positive Life Outcomes, by Kirsteen McLay-Knopp

Boy hugging toy, looking at bowl of marshmallowsgetty creative easy access

Continuing  our series of articles on findings discovered by the “Dunedin Longitudinal Study”…

Among the most important and hopeful findings of The Dunedin Study is that there is something unfixed, something we can teach any child, regardless of their personality type, which will increase their future health, wealth and happiness.  This important something is the quality of self control.

The measure of self control a child possesses has, through the findings of The Dunedin Studyand others, been shown to be a more important factor in predicting individual positive life outcomes than intelligence or IQ.

jay_belsky

Professor Belsky

“Are you in command of yourself or does your self control you?” asks Professor Jay Belsky, Professor of Human Development at the University of California, Davis.  “Lots of people will say, ‘I didn’t choose to explode, it just happened.’  However, we now know that self control measured at age three forecasts whether a person will be married/ in a stable relationship, whether they will have a good or bad job history and even whether they will have good or bad health in adulthood.”

The good new is that, unlike personality  (which is fairly fixed), self control is variable, as it is a quality we learn.  Following from this, self control can be developed in any child.

Self Control is not fixed and can be developed in anyone.

The classic psychological “self control” test is what has become known as “The Marshmallow Test”.  Young children are left alone in a room with a marshmallow on a plate in front of them.  If they manage not to eat the marshmallow before an adult returns, they are given a second marshmallow.  They are told clearly in advance that the reward for controlling their natural impulse to eat the first marshmallow will be to obtain a second one. The children were filmed while alone with the marshmallow.  Children who showed the most self control during these experiments used self distraction to avoid eating the marshmallow.

“Kids who have the ability to distract themselves in this way are those who have had early, clear boundaries put in place,” Professor Belsky says.  “By age three or four they know that if they are told not do do something, the best method of avoiding it is not to hang around it and to find something else to do.”  Children’s methods of avoiding the marshmallow (and controlling their impulses) vary: some sing, crawl under the table, put their heads down or shut or avert their eyes.  When put in pairs, children encouraged (or discouraged) self control in one another. (A video clip of children participating in “The Marshmallow Test”, from YouTube is below).

The results of The Dunedin Studyshow that in almost every measure of success, self control made a huge difference.  Moreover, participants who displayed low levels of self control during childhood presented with a raft of physical problems later on in life. These health issues included such things as obesity, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, heart disease, gum disease and sexually transmitted diseases.  “Low self-control” children were also more likely to grow up addicted to tobacco, alcohol or drugs. All these represent an expensive cost to the individual, their community and society.

Self Control: a more important factor in predicting individual positive life outcomes than intelligence or IQ.

How, then, can self control be improved and developed in our children?  The best control measure in the The Dunedin Studycame when comparing children who were identified at age three as having an “Undercontrolled” personality (10% of participants) with one another.  Those who had firm, consistent and sensitive parenting with structure and routine developed self control habits which over-rode their “Undercontrolled” personality types.  “Enforced Norms”, such as those created in Early Childhood Education Centres, were also shown to be of benefit in helping children regulate their own behaviour and create their own  boundaries.  Furthermore, it was shown that intervention and work on developing self control at any age (even during adulthood) was beneficial.

As with other areas, however, The Dunedin Studyfindings showed that the greatest benefits were achieved the younger the age at which children learned these skills.

Professor Heckman

Professor Heckman

Professor James Heckman is Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago, a Nobel Memorial Prize winner in economics and an expert in the economics of human development.  Heckman and his team have been using results from The Dunedin Study“ in the USA, advising the presidency to prioritize the teaching of Self Control in schools.  Professor Heckman believes this will result in huge, long term benefits to the US economy, as well as immense savings.

Once again, then, findings from The Dunedin Studyoffer hope and encouragement.  Nature at age three, thirty three or fifty three does not vary greatly.  However Nurture plays and enormous part in determining whether or not a young child has positive life outcomes as an adult.  Role modelling and teaching the vitally important quality of “Self Control”, as well as parenting consistently, with regular routines and boundaries, gives young children, particularly those with Undercontrolled or  Inhibited personality types, the best chance at becoming well-adjusted adults who are able to cope with what life throws their way.  The overall message then: with the right methods and resources at our disposal we can make a difference in the life trajectory of any child… something we can all feel positive about.

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One thought on “The Dunedin Study: The Vital Importance of “Self Control” in creating Positive Life Outcomes, by Kirsteen McLay-Knopp

  1. Pingback: “The Dunedin Longitudinal Study”…one of the most amazing and detailed studies EVER of how important “The Forever Years” of childhood are in shaping the adults we become. By Kirsteen McLay-Knopp | The Forever Years

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