MONDAY, Aug. 29 (HealthDay News) -- Kids who have trouble
resisting temptation are more likely than patient preschoolers to
grow into adults who lack self-control, a new study suggests.
"What we're seeing is that there are some individuals who consistently presented as high or low delayers," lead study author B.J. Casey, a cognitive neuroscientist at the Sackler Institute for Developmental Psychobiology at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City, said.
Prior research has shown that people who have trouble delaying
gratification have lower SATs scores on average, higher body mass
indexes (BMIs), higher divorce rates and a higher risk of substance
abuse, Casey said.
Forty years ago, researchers put a group of 4-year-olds through
a classic test designed to measure self-control. The kids were left
in a room with a cookie or a marshmallow treat (whichever they
preferred). An adult told the children if they could wait for him
to return, they could have two cookies or two treats instead of
Kids also had the option of ringing a bell on a desk while the
adult was away, in which case the experimenter would run back, and
the child could eat one treat but not the second.
The kids were then rated as either having low, average or high
self-control depending on how long they could wait to eat the
Followed through adolescence and into adulthood, many of the
original 500 participants provided assessments of their
self-control in their 20s and 30s. In their mid-40s today, 59 of
them took another test to measure their self-control and ability to
In the new test, reported in the Aug. 30 issue of
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the adults were shown images of either smiling, fearful or neutral faces, and instructed to press a button based on the facial expression.
The concept is that a smiling face is more enticing than a
neutral face. For adults, reaction to faces is a better way of
testing self-control than the promise of a cookie or
"As we get older, we're conditioned to respond to positive and negative social cues, so smiling faces are very alluring," said Casey.
The study found that the kids who lacked self-control grew into
adults who had a harder time resisting the urge to act when they
saw the smiling face than kids who had more self-control as
Researchers also did brain scans of 26 participants and found
differences in activation of the ventral striatum, a region
involved with reward and implicated in addiction.
Researchers found no difference in the responses when
participants were shown only neutral faces, which presumably were
Casey said the findings suggest that those who are able to delay
gratification may be less susceptible to the pull of "alluring
information" -- in this case, the sweet or the smiling face.
"What it tells us is that it's not that they can't control their impulses, like in ADHD. It's probably more associated with their overall sensitivity to how alluring the cue is to them, in terms of the difficulty in not being able to withhold a response," she said.
Sometimes, this trait can be advantageous, Casey said. "Any time
you take risks or you're a novelty seeker, sometimes it's going to
pay off and sometimes it won't. If you're not a risk taker, you may
not take advantage of all opportunities."
Dr. Andrew Adesman, chief of developmental and behavioral
pediatrics at the Steven and Alexandra Cohen Children's Medical
Center of New York in New Hyde Park, said the study is both unique
and significant in that researchers were able to follow up with
people over a 40-year span.
Yet he cautioned against drawing firm conclusions about how
likely a lack of self control at age 4 is to persist into
adulthood. The original research included several hundred kids. In
this paper, researchers "cherry picked" those who were on either
end of the spectrum at age 4 and continued to have that trait as
they reached their 20s and 30s.
While that can help researchers detect differences in brain
scans, it leaves out kids who may have had difficulty with delaying
gratification and improved over time. Nor does the research get at
the role of parenting or education in helping kids learn
self-control, he added.
"The findings here are not surprising in that they do show there is stability in some individuals of these traits and there are neurobiological differences underpinning it," he said. "But you have to be careful presuming that the way kids are at 4 is the way they are going to be at 40."
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