January 24, 2011
3 Year Olds Out Of Control Set Pattern For Life

Not exactly a Blank Slate view of human nature...

DURHAM, N.C. -- A long-term study has found that children who scored lower on measures of self-control as young as age 3 were more likely to have health problems, substance dependence, financial troubles and a criminal record by the time they reached age 32.

Self-control in the more than 1,000 New Zealand children who participated in the study was assessed by teachers, parents, observers and the children themselves. It included measures like "low frustration tolerance, lacks persistence in reaching goals, difficulty sticking with a task, over-active, acts before thinking, has difficulty waiting turn, restless, not conscientious."

Fast-forward to adulthood, and the kids scoring lowest on those measures scored highest for things like breathing problems, gum disease, sexually transmitted disease, inflammation, overweight, and high cholesterol and blood pressure, according to an international research team led by Duke University psychologists Terrie Moffitt and Avshalom Caspi.

With the crashing costs of DNA sequencing we are going to find out soon how much genetic variations contribute to creating toddlers who are no good. I hear George Thorogood singing.

On the day I was born, the nurses all gathered 'round
And they gazed in wide wonder, at the joy they had found
The head nurse spoke up, and she said leave this one alone
She could tell right away, that I was bad to the bone

Yes that head nurse was on to something.

The impulsivity and relative inability to think about the long-term of the lower self-control individuals gave them more difficulty with finances, like savings, home ownership and credit card debt. They also were more likely to be single parents, have a criminal conviction record, and be dependent on alcohol, tobacco, cannabis and harder drugs.

"These adult outcomes were predictable across the entire spectrum of self-control scores, from low to high," Moffitt said.

Toddlers bent on a life of crime.

(Reuters Life!) - Children who have low levels of self-control at three are more likely to have health and money problems and a criminal record by the age of 32, regardless of background and IQ, scientists said on Monday.

Science is gradually rediscovering ancient wisdom about human nature.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2011 January 24 11:57 PM  Brain Innate

mthson said at January 25, 2011 12:18 AM:

People who are still trying to obscure the study of genetics after decades of losing ground are the enemies of human progress.

JP Straley said at January 25, 2011 6:18 AM:

The ancient physician Galen commented on the four temperaments: "sanguine", "melancholic", "choleric" and "phlegmatic"


David A. Young said at January 25, 2011 9:10 AM:

I have no doubt genetics plays a huge part in this, but don't completely neglect the parenting factor. Lousy parents can turn the best of kids into spoiled little hellions, and they usualy don't get any better at guidance as the kids get older and the issues more complex.

xd said at January 25, 2011 10:17 AM:

But on the other hand, parenting and appropriate peers can make a large difference.
I, for example, have two masters degrees and make six figures, though I scored high for all of those things as a kid and yes score high for all of the adult predicted data points too.

My mom is from a poor neighborhood and not very smart, my dad is from a poor neighborhood but very smart and is the only one in his family with a college degree. We started out fairly poor for the first part of my childhood.
My dad got a good job when I was ten years old and we moved to a better part of town, where my new peers didn't fight or steal car stereos, their older siblings didn't take hard drugs and rather than ending up in jail, they mostly ended up in college.
My dad forced me to read every night and painstakingly taught me to read the first five thousand words of the English language one by one.

The first cohort of my friends followed true-to-type, yet I ended up going to college.
Sure I struggle with impulsivity (I have trouble with credit cards for example) but on the other hand I am a success by most measures.

Nature or Nurture? I think it's too early to make the call.

BioBob said at January 25, 2011 10:46 AM:

Pattern recognition is one of the major functions of higher intelligence. Seeing patterns where there are none (Apophenia) is one of humanities largest weaknesses. Discerning between the two is perhaps the largest challenge. It is the job of the scientific method to help with this chore. Too much science today is NOT as we can see by the reams of conflicting data.

kurt9 said at January 25, 2011 10:50 AM:


I think it was you who posted about a year ago that this would be the year that lots of "troubling" findings from genetic research would make it into the public news. That recent genetic research had failed to identify any genetic correlates with diseases that MD's had been claiming were "genetic" for years, but that the same genetic research had identified strong correlates with cognitive and character traits. Maybe it was either Steve Sailor or Razib who made this posting. Correct me if I am wrong. Is this an example of this data?

In any case, this information certainly favors the nature over nurture in the nature vs nurture debate.

The causes of this could still be environmental rather than genetic. However, environmental in this case means the biochemical environment in the womb during gestation and the like, rather than stuff like educational environment, up bringing, blah, blah, blah that is spouted by PC academic people. In fact, I will bet you that 90% of "environmental" factors in development are the womb's biochemical environment rather than the social environment as commonly cited.

xd said at January 25, 2011 11:44 AM:


I think you're missing the point about what the PC academic people are saying.
It's not that nurture will bring the genetically disadvantaged up to the same level as the genetically advantaged, it's that the former ends up as productive as possible instead of being a criminal or a net drag on society.

Clearly a kid born to a violently criminal impulsive father and a drug addict mother will struggle to compete in the same field as a kid born to an accountant and a lawyer, but the former could make the leap to be e.g. a successful sales person instead of a drug addict or a criminal with adequate nurture.

Engineer Dad said at January 25, 2011 9:24 PM:

The causes of this could still be environmental rather than genetic. However, environmental in this case means the biochemical environment in the womb during gestation and the like, rather than stuff like educational environment, up bringing, blah, blah, blah that is spouted by PC academic people.

Experiments with aggressive and tame breeds of silver foxes by Soviet scientists have shown that implanting aggressive fox embryos into tame birth mothers had no effect on the pups aggression. As adults, they exhibited bloodthirsty behavior and could not be touched by humans, while their birth mothers could be handled by small children.

The aggressive foxes had much higher levels of adrenaline than their birth mothers.

PBS Nova presentation "Dogs Decoded".

Free on Netflix.

kurt9 said at January 26, 2011 9:39 AM:

Experiments with aggressive and tame breeds of silver foxes by Soviet scientists have shown that implanting aggressive fox embryos into tame birth mothers had no effect on the pups aggression. As adults, they exhibited bloodthirsty behavior and could not be touched by humans, while their birth mothers could be handled by small children.

I guess this stuff really is genetic.

clazy8 said at January 26, 2011 11:11 AM:

I can't understand how anyone who has raised children would entertain the idea of a blank slate. If you want to blame your parents for all your troubles, however, the blank slate might be pretty compelling.

clazy8 said at January 26, 2011 11:16 AM:

Aggressive fox *embryos*?! Sounds like Alien.

The False God said at January 26, 2011 11:20 AM:

I, for one, am not ready to hand responsibility for actions over to a panel of genetic behavioral experts. The idea that an individual cannot make choices for himself and be responsible for them, but that he needs to be controlled, monitored, and bred out, is ripe grounds for abuse by a particular human trait: clever malevolence. The moment you let someone convince you that they are better suited to make decisions for you is the moment you become a patsy and dupe for the rest of your life. The first step in making a slave class is convincing people that they are inferior beyond their control.

Ellen said at January 26, 2011 11:22 AM:

Perhaps one of these days it will be okay to say men and women are different -- and not just in upbringing. The 'blank slate' theory has a lot of sins to its name.

Michele said at January 26, 2011 11:24 AM:

I never thought I'd do this, but I'm saying "Amen" to "The False God".

Half Canadian said at January 26, 2011 11:28 AM:

Three times more likely means what percent of toddlers were criminals, drug abusers, etc.?

eots said at January 26, 2011 11:42 AM:

I agree that genetics are powerful. On the other hand, lack of self-control at age three can be a result of parents failing to provide appropriate structure early on. Parents who did not provide structure at an early age, may fail to discipline the child altogether.

Engineer Mom said at January 26, 2011 11:42 AM:

These "measures" of self-control describe the typical little boy. Wise people know that boys and girls are different. Female teachers are often the first ones to whine that little boys lack self-control because they don't act like the little girls. These ignorant teachers pressure parents to push ADHD drugs on boys. A drugged kid is a more easily controlled kid, which makes life so much simpler for lazy teachers. There have been studies linking ADHD drugging in children to substance abuse later in life.

The feminization of males started in the 60's. As a sister of 4 brothers, mother of a son and 2 daughters, and grandmother of 2 girls, I have witnessed these God-given differences in male and female personalities over 3 generations. This "study" is suspect to me. Teachers, usually female, are the driving force, and their motives are completely selfish. They are the child's 1st drug pushers. They influence the parents (who falsely believe the teachers are altruistic and knowledgeable), and both influence the little boys. My parents and I never gave in to drugging our very active, happy, normal sons. They are all succesful, well-adjusted, active men. None of them have the dreaded symptoms listed including "breathing problems and gum disease" although I'm pretty sure they have had (Oh, God!) "inflammation" because of sports injuries. Who hasn't had "inflammation"?

This study sounds like a howling embarrassment lacking scientific rigor. But not lacking an agenda.

BCT said at January 26, 2011 11:59 AM:

Some highly successful people who were impulsive, hyper, distracted children - it can be channeled very productively!

Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Airlines.
John T. Chambers, CEO of Cisco Systems.
Ingvar Kamprad, Swedish founder and chairman of IKEA stores
David Neeleman founder and CEO of Jet Blue Airways.
Paul Orfalea the founder and chairperson of Kinko’s. non
Charles Schwab the founder, chairperson, and CEO of the Charles Schwab Corporation, the largest brokerage firm in the U.S.
Thomas Edison - inventor
Frank Lloyd Wright - architect
Leonardo DaVinci - artist inventor

Instead of thinking of 3 year old who have lower self control as future problem adults, think of them as future innovators and entrepreneurs; non-conformists who will be driven to find a better way; breaking rules to move humanity forward.

Phillep Harding said at January 26, 2011 12:13 PM:

One of my co-workers was a highly impulsive, super alpha, who had also seriously abused drugs. If he had gone criminal, he'd be a mafia Don. As it was, he was a successful plant manager in a highly chaotic industry. So, I think BTC is on to something.

clazy8 said at January 26, 2011 12:19 PM:

Interesting remarks from Engineer Mom -- juxtaposed with BCT's list of successful problem kids, they remind me of something I once read about the greater variability of "intelligence" or some other such characteristic among boys, compared with girls. This difference was offered to explain a preponderance of men among the most accomplished participants in various disciplines; the flipside being that there were also a preponderance of men among the losers; whereas the average for both men and women was essential equal. (I apologize for the vagueness.) Is this true? I wonder if this study looked at whether children scoring low on certain indicators of "self-control" were also more likely to be more successful in particular fields, as BCT suggests.

BBM said at January 26, 2011 12:31 PM:

No doubt that these traits (impulsiveness, aggression, etc) exist in the population for some reason (like sickle trait, they may have some adaptive qualities in certain situations).

OTOH, can anyone recommend any good resources to help train self control in young kids (3 and under)?

Seerak said at January 26, 2011 2:17 PM:

Science is gradually rediscovering ancient wisdom about human nature.

Perhaps we ought to call you DistantPastPundit, then.

My experience with my brother's kids (one niece, two nephews) confirms the idea that a kid who lacks self-control at 3 will be more likely to do poorly in life. Duh. The difference is that I can plainly see how it results from the parenting, not from genetics.

My older nephew learned at a very young age that he could cute his way out of any trouble when dealing with his mother. When he was with *my* mom (his grandmother) who wouldn't put up with any of that crap -- different kid. Completely. Unfortunately, my mom wasn't his day-in day-out trainer, so I'm pretty sure by now that this kid, 13, who is getting angrier and angrier as the world continues to not respond to what worked for him when he was 3, is going to jail.

The niece, born to the other brother, who in his own words is "a hardass", is just as cute -- but it isn't her tool for survival, as that's not her training.

The youngest nephew (brother to the niece), on the other hand, is growing up like the first -- except that instead of being cute, his control method is a loud whine. The difference there is that he has so far been largely raised by his teenage older sister. Where my brother was a single parent and unemployed during the niece's formative years, he's now working and married to someone also working, so the day-to-day fell to the wife's older daughter. My brother and wike have just recently rejigged their working schedules to take that over, and they intend to re-train the nephew (now almost 4, and still in diapers) while he's still in the training (as opposed to "teaching") phase.

I think they can succeed -- because genetic determinism is claptrap, and nature vs. nurter is a false alternative (it doesn't account for self-determination).

M. Thatcher said at January 26, 2011 2:26 PM:

"...as young as age 3 were *more likely*...kids scoring lowest on those measures *scored highest*...gave them *more difficulty*...They also were *more likely*..."

This article is entirely without hard data points. It's all conclusion and no evidence. HOW much more likely? What percentage? Obviously, there are many who DON'T fit the thesis (bad at 3, bad forever); is it a majority? I'll bet it is, but you won't learn either way from this absolutely worthless coverage.

Randall Parker said at January 26, 2011 6:21 PM:


Impulsive geniuses have a big thing going for them: They are geniuses. Put impulsiveness in a 90 IQ person and all you get are really dumb impulsive actions. The impulsiveness does not make the dummies smarter or more creative.


Self determination is a figment of imagination put there by puppeteer genes.

Brian Carnell said at January 26, 2011 8:36 PM:

M. Thatcher is right...coverage is complete nonsense, as is the implication being reached by a lot of the commenters and OP.

For example, the researchers actually looked at self-control factors at a number of ages, starting with 3, and noted that there were in fact children who started out as having poor self-control at age 3 but had greater self-control by age 11. Yes there is an association with self-control at age 3, but as the researchers noted (but the comments and coverage don't bother to include) those were only "modest effects." The strong effects were looking at a composite score of self control from ages 3 into preteens and early adulthood performed at 2 year intervals.

Second, WTF with the naive determinist nonsense in the OP and the comments. The researchers certainly don't maintain such a stupid view: "Given that self-control is malleable, it could be a prevention target, and the key policy question becomes when to intervene to achieve the best cost–benefit ratio, in childhood or in adolescence (19, 20)?" The message here, if there is one, is that children with poor self-control need interventions to help them acquire better self-control. In fact, the researchers attribute experiments with preschool programs in the 1960s in New Zealand with some modest success in increasing self-control even where they failed to accomplish their stated goal of raising IQ, etc.

"Science is gradually rediscovering ancient wisdom about human nature" is really the ignorant PC view in this case.

SomeDay said at January 26, 2011 9:11 PM:

I've raised my own four kids and three step children. In my opinion, if you haven't established that a child has to listen to you before they reach 4, it's never going to happen. They'll calm down between 5 and 12, but you are most likely going to have serious problems after 12 years old. I saw this pattern with two of my step children that had reached 4 convinced that they were the boss of all they surveyed. The personality differences that children are born with make it more or less difficult. With some children, it is very easy; with others, it may be impossible. My experience raising children was using only what modern culture would consider acceptable forms of discipline. However, it appears to me that this isn't an all or nothing thing, there are degrees of success which I think modifies how bad it gets in the teenage years.

I suspect that more extreme forms of discipline might encourage greater malleability in children's behavior; "spare the rod and spoil the child" may have stronger effects on the child, which could be either good or bad. I say that because my grandfather used an 11 foot whip to teach me some lessons about right and wrong when I was about 12, and they 'took' very effectively. As far as I can tell from reading and studying, much of the violent discipline that is used on children, probably causes more problems than it cures. However, I am grateful that my grandfather didn't have to go to jail, as would clearly be the case now, and that he realized that he had inherited a serious problem that needed serious measures to correct, and the wisdom to correct the problem instead of making it worse. However, I certainly don't wish it upon anybody. If you are such a damned poor parent that it comes to something like that, I can only say, shame on you...

Engineer Dad said at January 26, 2011 9:45 PM:

Seerak said:
"I think they can succeed -- because genetic determinism is claptrap, and nature vs. nurter is a false alternative (it doesn't account for self-determination)."
A boy or girls potential is obviously governed by 'nature *and* nurture'. For example, in Rome in 60 A.D. an underfed, undersized illiterate 20 year old Briton chained by the ankles and fed sparingly every other day would cower in wonder before a well fed, groomed, and educated Roman at twice his mass and size.

That's nurture.

Fast forward to Berkeley, California 2009:

Studies find Latino toddlers' gap in cognitive growth

"Two new studies led by University of California, Berkeley, researchers find that immigrant Latina mothers, who typically live in poor neighborhoods, give birth to healthy babies, but their toddlers start to lag behind middle-class white children in basic language and cognitive skills by the age of 2 or 3.
The Mexican American mothers "display remarkably sound prenatal practices and healthy diets, more beneficial habits than any other group in the U.S.,"

"But while robust births contribute to the earliest cognitive growth of Latino toddlers, Fuller said these youngsters are falling behind the pace of white children's language and mental development by the time they turn 2 or 3."

That's nature.


Maureen said at January 27, 2011 3:45 AM:

Just because Mom is healthy and feeds the kids good food, doesn't mean she plays with them in a stimulating way or takes them to museums or teaches them to read. If you're a Latina who lives in a poor neighborhood in California, you're likely to be a poor illegal immigrant from a remote village who never got a chance to go to school. You might know a lot about farming or jungle plants at home or what have you, but you don't have a chance to pass that along. Your English may not be good. (Heck, your Spanish may not be good. You may be a native speaker of some Indian language, for instance, and there's just not much call for your language in LA; or the language might be dying at home, so that your native tongue is some kind of pidgin of Spanish and the Indian language.) You might not know about Sesame Street or educational programs, or about libraries having stuff for kids. You know about feeding kids fresh corn and beans and squash and tomatoes, though. Your kids will never starve or be at the mercy of the crop season, like you sometimes had to be.

So yeah, your kids are probably disadvantaged compared to "white children", then, especially if the "white children" are rich Berkeley alumni's kids who go to some Berkeley daycare. Your kids would probably beat a lot of the "white children" at baseball, and at certain practical skills.

KAS said at January 27, 2011 8:38 AM:

"Experiments with aggressive and tame breeds of silver foxes by Soviet scientists have shown that implanting aggressive fox embryos into tame birth mothers had no effect on the pups aggression. As adults, they exhibited bloodthirsty behavior and could not be touched by humans, while their birth mothers could be handled by small children. The aggressive foxes had much higher levels of adrenaline than their birth mothers. "

Just had to respond to this one with two other examples:

In a study of foals born to surrogate mares the findings were that no matter how hot the sire and dam of the embryo, being born to a quiet calm draft mare resulted in a calmer easier going temperament in the foals.

Studies are finding that the genetic code has a LOT of switches and ALL of those are determined in the womb--by the gestating female's body working on the growing embryo.

Thus the gestating mother has a huge environmental impact on the expression of the child's DNA.

The Nature vs Nurture debate is really moot. There are DNA codes and these are like a series of switches that will express to a huge extent as the gestating mother's body dictates. You cannot call the gestation process nurture as it is not under the conscious control of the mother, yet, that uterine environment and mother's hormones represent an environmental effect rather than being strictly DNA/inheritance driven.

It is more a discussion of Inheritance + Gestational determinations vs Education + Parental decisions + Individual decisions.

Way more complex than nature vs nurture IMO.

xd said at January 27, 2011 8:46 AM:


I have noticed anecdotally that those who have suffered SEVERE violent discipline (such as in your case 11 foot whips) tend to reject even moderate violent discipline. My brother's wife is from Peru and she received severe beatings as a kid as discipline and is extremely anti any kind of violent discipline. I know others who were severely beaten that have gone to the other extreme too. It's perhaps understandable but it's also possible to clinically say that there could be an emotional component to the response: the fear instilled by the extreme violence was so graphic and terrible it caused psychological problems and thus even trying to consider using milder forms of violent punishment are emotionally difficult regardless of the efficacy.

In my own case, I went to a middle school which still used the strap. This is anecdotal I know but I remember when the strap was banned after my first year there the indiscipline of the kids crept up incrementally. My youngest brother's class was totally undisciplined (since I knew his friends) and disrespectful to teachers.

The conclusion I have taken is that mild violence (such as a very sore hand from the strap) is effective in immediately restraining bad behavior (though it does not teach why the behavior is bad) and cumulatively (like pavlov's dog) teaches the recipient of the discipline just not to do it.

Moving away from observation and hypothesis I note that my brother's kids who receive only an explanation of why their behavior is wrong but no hard limits, simply do not listen to their mother and scream and shout until she caves. In contrast my two boys who also scream and shout and behave badly in the presence of their mother only need to hear their father start counting to get back in line because they know that when 3 is reached EVERY SINGLE TIME there will be a none-too-gentle slap on the back of the hand.

I also wonder if I had not received the strap in the first year of middle school and elementary school, whether I would have learned to sit still in class instead of bouncing off the walls or goofing around.

xd said at January 27, 2011 9:07 AM:


Your hypothetical latino kid may not have gone to museums and his English might not be perfect but it will usually be passable and he will also know pretty acceptable Spanish (bilingualism being good for math skills if he ever got the chance to learn).
Although his mother may only speak crappy Spanish, the rest of the barrio will be speaking more or less standard Spanish with some Spanglish thrown in. Most of the kids born in the neighborhood will be pretty much bilingual however by the time they are in their teens.
In addition to being able to play better basketball compared to their berkeley counterparts, they will also likely knows how to fix his dad's car and a washing machine and build a wall etc all before he's ten years old.

As for attaining higher levels of education I don't believe for a second it's genetic. It's more ignorance and history than anything else.
In Mexico, there may be no point in getting a university education even though it only costs 100 pesos per month, because there simply aren't enough middle class jobs. Being able to fix a fridge, repair a car (with any spare parts available) or repair a washing machine are much more valuable skills there.

Then, coming to the United States they instantly make three to four times the money for doing the same job and the level of safety and corruption has improved significantly that they have made a massive jump in the standard of living even if to the eyes of a person raised in Berkeley they are still living in poverty. Not so. From those I know, the concept of going to college is met with blank stares.
"That's for Gavachos, hombre."

How do I know this?
My wife is Latina from exactly such a barrio in a U.S. border town, born and raised in the US, but Spanish speaking. Went to a US elementary, middle school and High School. I have spent enough time in the barrio (and can speak fluent Spanish) that I have a very good handle on this. There are plenty of very smart people in the barrios, but there are invisible cultural barriers holding them back, not genetics.

My wife is a case in point. Originally she had crappy (though perfectly understandable and unaccented) English but no longer.
She also took a couple basic college courses at my insistence (for which she saw no good reason at the time) and now has a University degree in Liberal Arts with a French Major. Her cousins have taken note of this and have all improved their English, gotten their US citizenship (instead of remaining as green card holders their whole lives) as well as enrolled in community college programs and became for example beauticians and cooks et cetera. The males have been far more resistant.

I speculate that the males are far more resistant because they have status by simply crossing the border again to visit their less well off cousins on the other side and thus feel no need to improve themselves.

Furthermore, I notice that all of the children (i.e. second generation Americans) although they can speak Spanish as well as their parents, all speak English preferentially and there are scatterings of them with intentions of going to college.

I think the argument that it's mainly genetics is off the wall.

The poster who said bad genetics combined with low intelligence is the key is probably most correct as regards the nature side.
Of course an impulsive genius is better off than an impulsive moron. The rest is down to discipline (self or imposed), study, parental upbringing and peer-role-models.


Forrest said at January 27, 2011 10:07 AM:

So this explains the left.

Mthson said at January 27, 2011 3:35 PM:

Re XD: "but there are invisible cultural barriers holding them back, not genetics."

An encouraging culture can certainly give a boost to anybody, but when we raise naturally intellectual kids in non-intellectual environments, they just rebel against the dumb culture around them.

Some kids naturally like to read and seek out knowledge, and others naturally dislike it. We can even see that dynamic to a degree within sets of siblings.

Engineer Dad said at January 28, 2011 10:02 PM:

In a study of foals born to surrogate mares the findings were that no matter how hot the sire and dam of the embryo, being born to a quiet calm draft mare resulted in a calmer easier going temperament in the foals.

Hi KAS can you provide a link or reference to corroborate your statement?

You are correct to state the ideal surrogate mare should be quiet and calm since it helps ensure the mare carrying the foal to term. I have found many references by breeders seeking calm surrogate mares.

Yet, the last thing horse breeders want from a surrogate mare giving birth to a $20,000 foal is a horse with a 'calmer easier going temperament'. They usually make lousy racehorses. It is not logical.

"Thoroughbred racing usually favors horses that are aggressive because they tend to intimidate their opponents while running, and many "mean" racehorses have been excellent on the track."


The Thoroughbred is a horse breed best known for its use in horse racing. Although the word "thoroughbred" is sometimes used to refer to any breed of purebred horse, it technically refers only to the Thoroughbred breed. Thoroughbreds are considered a hotblooded horse, known for their agility, speed and spirit.


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