Childhood self-control and adult health

Lead Research Organisation: University of Stirling
Department Name: Management, Work and Organisation


Self-control enables people to delay gratification and control impulses. The power to avoid temptation represents a vital human capacity. A strong capacity for self-control is linked with many aspects of healthy living: avoiding high fat and sugar foods, engaging in exercise, and staying clear of addictive substances. These unhealthy behaviours are recognized as major determinants of mortality and morbidity in the UK and globally.

In this project I seek to decipher whether self-control is at the root of many of the unfavourable health behaviours that burden health systems as well as the health problems that afflict many in society. Most existing evidence on the potential contribution of self-control to health comes from small non-representative samples examined in laboratory studies or through surveys with short periods of follow-up and which use self-reported outcomes.

This has meant that it is currently difficult for researchers to know if self-control actually contributes to subsequent health behaviour and health outcomes outside of the laboratory, if this is true of the population rather than of a select few, and if objectively verifiable health-related outcomes are affected. In the proposed programme of research I aim to address squarely these major challenges.

I will provide scientific evidence detailing whether and how individual differences in childhood self-control contribute to the emergence of patterns of health behaviour and health problems over the lifespan. Consistent with the ESRC's Delivery Plan's objective to foster the usage of existing data resources, I will capitalize on the existence of four large population-representative samples which track over 10,000 individuals for between 15 and 50 years with data recorded on multiple occasions from early life into adulthood.

These incredible data resources include detailed measures of child temperament that have not yet been exploited to examine childhood self-control and its health effects but represent a clear opportunity to do so. Crucially, I have identified a set of questions which ostensibly gauge self-control in each of these studies and in this project will empirically test how these items correspond to well-validated self-control measures.

Using the self-control measures derived from this process I will then identify how childhood self-control shapes the uptake, maintenance and decline of smoking, drinking, physical activity, and substance use from adolescence through to middle age. I will track how early life self-control links to later health outcomes (e.g. body mass index, biomarkers of inflammation and cardiovascular risk). Finally, I will implement a series of analyses to unpick the complex interrelationships between self-control, socioeconomic status, and the development of health.

This project represents a unique departure from conventional approaches that have not taken an integrated approach to examine the health impact of self-control at multiple time points, in multiple datasets, over an extensive time horizon. I have the appropriate skillset to ensure this project is a success: pre-existing expertise working with large-scale datasets, biological data, and applying advanced longitudinal analyses to personality and health data.

I request funding to provide protected time and assistance to: i) strengthen and develop important collaborations (e.g. with Prof. Roy Baumeister and Prof. Ian Deary), ii) undertake a detailed programme of skill development activities including training in advanced statistical methods and psychometric techniques, iii) complete and disseminate a programme of research which will provide a solid empirical platform on which existing ideas about the health impact of self-control will be formally tested, and iv) detail the implications of the proposed work for policies which aim to intervene to enhance self-control early in life or to address the impact of low levels of self-control in adulthood.

Planned Impact

The goal of the proposed programme of work is to enhance understanding the lifespan health effect of childhood capabilities and the mechanisms that underpin these effects. As such, there will be a broad set of beneficiaries from this project spanning the academic, policy, industry and pubic spheres. Firstly, this research will provide evidence to those who have developed theories of self-control detailing the areas where this capacity appears to be most effectively deployed to enhance health at different points in the life-cycle. Other researchers will undoubtedly employ the self-control measures derived from this project to examine a panoply of key life outcomes further enhancing knowledge regarding the benefits of childhood self-control.

The proposed research will generate novel predictions regarding the potential health benefits of early childhood intervention programmes which specifically target self-control and perseverance. In this way the current research will directly inform the evidence base for innovative policies that aim to capitalize on the malleability of personality traits to promote self-control. To date, evidence supporting the cost-benefit ratio of early intervention policies has focused largely on educational, labour market, and criminality outcomes. I will expand this evidence by providing a comprehensive overview of the potential health benefits of producing persistent changes in self-control early in life. Feeding this work into childhood intervention policy discussions particularly those relating to innovative approaches to reducing health inequalities will foster a more integrated understanding of the evolution of health and the formation of health disparities.

This work will also bring a greater focus on self-control into health policy. Currently, there is a good deal of interest in psychology in creating behaviour change interventions to effectively target health behaviours like smoking, alcohol consumption, and weight gain that place increasingly burdensome costs on both citizens and governments. A parallel literature has developed in behavioural economics detailing policy recommendations for interventions that effectively capitalise on flaws in human decision-making to foster in many instances desirable health behaviours. In both cases, the current work will inform these endeavors, firstly by identifying the segment of the population who are most likely to be in need of behaviour change interventions and when these interventions would be best implemented, and secondly by providing insight into what form such interventions should take. For instance, 'opt-out' policy-strategies in behavioural economics are likely to be most effective amongst those with low self-control as they make healthy choices the default option meaning these are unlikely to be avoided by those who lack strong effortful control and planning abilities.

Similarly, the healthcare and pharmaceuticals industries are increasingly seeking to develop behaviourally informed intervention strategies to promote engagement with health services, particularly amongst the disadvantaged, and to increase medication adherence rates. A better understanding of how self-control contributes to health behaviour and health over the lifespan may therefore be of interest to those within these industries who aim to go beyond segmentation based on sociodemographic characteristics to target and design behavioural interventions based on relevant stable individual difference characteristics.

The early life psychological factors that determine which children go on to take up smoking, become overweight, or engage in other unfavourable health behaviours are inherently interesting to the general public and particularly to parents, teachers and others who are involved in shaping the character skills of young people. This research will generate public awareness of such linkages and how investment in children could ameliorate these.


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Daly M (2019) Time Perspective and All-Cause Mortality: Evidence From the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing. in Annals of behavioral medicine : a publication of the Society of Behavioral Medicine

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Daly M (2016) Childhood self-control predicts smoking throughout life: Evidence from 21,000 cohort study participants. in Health psychology : official journal of the Division of Health Psychology, American Psychological Association

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Egan M (2017) Adolescent conscientiousness predicts lower lifetime unemployment. in The Journal of applied psychology

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Lades L (2017) Childhood self-control and adult pension participation in Economics Letters

Description Key finding 1: Childhood self-control makes a substantial graded contribution to (not) smoking throughout life. Adolescent smoking explains over half of this association.

Prior research had linked self-control and smoking using small samples, short periods of follow-up, and without ruling out alternative explanations for this link. To address these gaps in this study we examined two large UK population samples that have been followed-up over several decades and included statistical controls for variables that could lead to both poor childhood self-control and later smoking.

This is the first study to specify the association between early life self-control and trajectories of tobacco use across life. It shows that self-control is one of the most important childhood predictors of adult smoking with effects of a similar magnitude to parental smoking. Including measures of other individual difference factor such as intelligence or psychological distress or extensive controls for parental smoking and family background factors and child health did not affect these estimates. This paper has been published in the journal Health Psychology.

Daly, M., Egan, M., Quigley, J., Delaney, L., & Baumeister, R.F. (2016). Childhood self-control predicts smoking throughout life: Evidence from 21,000 cohort study participants. Health Psychology, 35, 1254-1263.

These findings are important as they point to a large potential benefit to increasing self-control through intervention, particularly prior to adolescence. Although the present study does not speak to the viability of strategies for increasing children's self-control, other work has explored ways of doing that, and because self-control is a domain-general capability improving it in any domain is likely to carry over into improved ability to avoid smoking throughout life.

Key finding 2: In the first major study to examine the interplay between childhood socioeconomic status and self-control in predicting health decades later we found the following:

In a sample of over 20,000 people from two large UK samples childhood self-control was found to be an important predictor of adult health, physiological dysregulation, and longevity.

Specifically, using the 1970 British Cohort Study age 42 dataset from 2012, the NCDS Biomedical Sweep and NCDS Deaths Dataset 1958 - 2014, and the NCDS age 55 follow-up in 2013, we have shown that childhood self-control predicts general health, chronic illness, physiological dysregulation (indexed by a set of biological variables including measures of circulatory, inflammatory, metabolic, and respiratory functioning) and mortality by midlife.

The findings suggested that increasing early life self-control could compensate for the long-run health consequences of social disadvantage. However, they did not indicate that self-control interacts systematically with disadvantage or acts as a major path through which social disadvantage influences later health.

These findings are important as they demonstrate the key role of self-control in predicting adult health. They also refute the idea that having good self-control in childhood is more beneficial to those from a disadvantaged vs. and advantaged background. Finally, these findings do not support the idea that social disadvantage leads to poor self-control which in turn shapes adult health behaviour and health.

Key finding 3: Childhood self-control is a key predictor of unemployment, particularly during times of economic recession.

This finding is important as unemployment is associated with a litany of adverse health and well-being consequences as well as lower future earnings.
Exploitation Route A clear avenue to take these findings forward would be to construct universal early intervention programmes targeting childhood self-control. The impact of these intervention programmes on health behaviours (e.g. rate of smoking uptake) and health could then be examined. In addition, it would be useful to test whether potential intervention effects differ by levels of social disadvantage. The research conducted as part of this grant suggests that improving childhood self-control could lead to better outcomes in terms of health and health behaviour but whether these will be greater for those from disadvantaged backgrounds is not clear.
Sectors Education,Healthcare

Description A press release for article entitled 'Childhood self-control and unemployment throughout the lifespan' 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Media (as a channel to the public)
Results and Impact The purpose of this press release was to engage the public with findings from this research project linking childhood self-control to unemployment throughout life. This research was covered across numerous media outlets including newspapers, radio, popular blogs including those of scientific societies, and twitter (e.g. main study finding tweeted by Uberfact (13.4m followers)). Altmetric score for study = 97.

2016 - Turbulent Teen Years Linked to Adult Unemployment
American Psychological Society

2016 - Children's willpower linked to s

2015 - Hard Work or Hard Times?
American Psychological Society

2015 - Being able to control your emotions is essential for career success
City A.M.

2015 - Self-control is the most important skill a parent can teach their child
Daily Mail (story shared 6,000 times)

2015 - Hard Work, Hard Times: Self-control and Joblessness
Huffington Post

2015 - Self-control as a child determines future successes

2015 - Learn self-control, stay off the dole
Pacific Standard

2015 - Self-control in childhood is linked to good career

2015 - Childhood self-control linked to enhanced job prospects throughout life
Science Daily & Medical Xpress

2015 - Early self-control lifts job prospects
The Herald

2015 - Children with better self-control are less likely to be unemployed
The Independent

2015 - The power of self-control
The Scotsman

2015 - Kids with self-control grab better jobs
Times of India & Economic Times
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
Description A press release informed by review entitled 'A Bidirectional Relationship between Executive Function and Health Behavior' 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Media (as a channel to the public)
Results and Impact The purpose of this Frontiers blog post / press release was to engage the public with research from this project which linked executive function, health behaviour, and health. Coverage included several science news outlets and blogs (e.g. Science Daily, Medical Xpress, Psychology Today, Psych Central). Altmetrics score for article = 124.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
Description Press release for study entitled 'Childhood self-control predicts smoking throughout life: Evidence from 21,000 cohort study participants.' 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Media (as a channel to the public)
Results and Impact The purpose of this press release was to engage the public with research from this project linking childhood self-control and smoking habits across life. Coverage included several science news outlets and blogs (e.g. Science Daily, Medical News Today, Neuroscience News). Altmetrics score for article = 55.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016