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Self-control matters – but to what extent can it be taught?

Recently in
the news, a report published by the independent think-tank Demos reminds us of
the importance of the capacity for self-control (it also mentions empathy, to
which most of the following remarks apply) in determining life outcomes. It
argues that self-control lessons should be taught at school if children,
particularly from deprived backgrounds, are to be given the tools they need to
succeed in life – low-self-control has for instance been shown to positively
correlate with length of unemployment or criminal behaviour, and negatively
with academic achievement. The report echoes renewed interest in the United
States in a now famous experiment by Walter Mischel on deferred gratification,
dating back to the late 1960s. Mischel tested the capacity of a group of
four-year olds to resist the temptation to eat straightaway a marshmallow he
had given them. The children who were able to refrain turned out to be better
adjusted, more dependable and to do better academically on the whole later in


The report
by Demos makes important points and its proposals deserve to be supported.
Nevertheless, even if they are put into practice, we might still feel concerned
about how effective we can expect them to be. There is indeed a body of
evidence suggesting that the capacity for self-control is to a large extent
genetically determined (Wright & Beaver, 2005; Beaver & al., 2009).


True, it
isn’t clear from such research whether genetically disadvantaged children just
have an inborn tendency to lack self-control, but a tendency that might be
corrected by a sufficient amount of training; or whether some such children
simply cannot, due to their genetic inheritance, learn to exercise self-control
(at least not to the level characteristic of their genetically more advantaged
peers), and if so, what proportion of children are in that situation. There is
evidence that strategies to teach children self-control can sometimes produce
positive results (Schweitzer & Sulzer-Azaroff, 1988). Yet on the other
hand, it is also clear that children show inborn differences in capacities that
are relevant to life success, such as general intelligence, which no amount of
teaching and training can fully eliminate. And just as there are mentally
handicapped children, some children might be natural underachievers in terms of
their ability to delay gratification, and might not be able to ever completely
get rid of that disadvantage.


If that is
the case, then differences in the capacity for self-control, with their
relevant effects on life outcomes, are not merely symptoms of socio-economic
inequality. They also raise the issue of genetic inequality: out of sheer luck,
some people are naturally better equipped to live a successful, fulfilling life
than others. Surely this is unfair. Teaching children self-control, at home and
at school, might go some way towards rectifying this unfairness, yet if the
assumption I have made is correct, then this can only be part of the solution.
Fully solving the problem of genetic inequality would require making use of
modern methods, such as embryo selection, that allow to positively select for
certain particular traits in a child before it is born.


The idea of
designing children for any purpose other than avoiding serious diseases tends
to elicit very negative reactions among the general public. A fertility clinic
in the United States
which was planning to offer prospective parents the
possibility to select some of their child’s traits thus recently had, in the
face of public outrage, to renounce its project. But it should be noted that
this clinic was proposing to allow the selection of traits such as eye or hair
colour, i.e. traits the possession of which cannot plausibly be argued to be in
a child’s best interests. Rather, such traits would merely have reflected
particular parental preferences. And when people oppose the idea of embryo
selection for non-therapeutic purposes, they don’t seem to pay sufficient
attention to the crucial difference between traits that clearly make for a
better life, and traits that parents just happen to prefer. While ensuring that
a child possesses certain traits of the latter kind might indeed be morally
questionable, this isn’t true of the former kind of traits, such as the
capacity for self-control. (Leaving aside the fact that it might seem somewhat
arbitrary to exclude low self-control from the “disease” category and then draw
ethical conclusions on that basis.)


Critics of
embryo selection for non-therapeutic purposes argue that allowing such a
practice for traits like intelligence would lead to new kinds of
discrimination. But this would only be the case if the availability of the
practice were restricted to a chosen few. If it could be made widely available,
then it might have exactly the opposite effect of what the critics are
claiming: it could help us fight genetic inequality, and the unfairness and
discrimination that result from it. We might then have a moral duty to ensure,
provided that we can do so safely, that future children possess certain key
traits like capacity for self-control, or general intelligence, to a sufficient
degree. If one is to argue against this idea, one must show that possessing
such traits to a higher degree doesn’t in fact clearly make for a better life.



Kevin M. & al. (2009). “Genetic and Environmental Influences on Levels of
Self-Control and Delinquent Peer Affiliation: Results from a Longitudinal
Sample of Adolescent Twins”. Criminal Justice and Behavior

Julie B. & Sulzer-Azaroff, Beth (1988). “Self-Control: Teaching Tolerance
for Delay in Impulsive Children”. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior

John P. & Beaver, Kevin M. (2005). “Do Parents Matter in Creating Self-Control
in their Children? A Genetically Informed Test of Gottfredson and Hirschi’s
Theory of Low Self-Control”. Criminology
43:4, 1169-98.

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3 Comment on this post

  1. There seems to be an association between intelligence and short-term orientation/impulsivity. It is not implausible that improving intelligence might have beneficial effects on self-control or vice versa, and both have important effects on life outcomes.

    There is also some evidence that higher intelligence, perhaps due to lower impulsivity, makes rational cooperation in social dilemmas more likely. Hence there are not just individual welfare reasons to try to improve on the genetic lottery, but also social gain reasons.

    de Wit, H., J. D. Flory, et al. (2007). “IQ and nonplanning impulsivity are independently associated with delay discounting in middle-aged adults.” Personality and Individual Differences 42(1): 111-121

    Jones, G. (2008). “Are smarter groups more cooperative? Evidence from prisoner’s dilemma experiments, 1959-2003.” Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization 68(3-4): 489-497.

  2. When parents can control the various aspects of their offspring, including self-control, tolerance for frustration, ability to understand and follow cultural norms, etc. then, when the offspring commits a crime, who goes to jail?

  3. Anders:

    Thanks of lot for these references.


    The hypothetical scenario you’re considering would imply a far greater degree of control from parents over their offspring than what I am suggesting might be desirable. I take it that your hypothesis is: some parents have used all the means they had to ensure that their child wouldn’t indulge in criminal behavior, yet he eventually does commit a crime. Under those conditions, it would seem to me that this person would be even more responsible for his behavior (and therefore that his being punished would be even more justified) than if he hadn’t been engineered in this manner. Unless his collapse into criminal behavior could be clearly shown to be linked to the education he received at home (which would be surprising given the kind of engineering his parents had sought), or unless this person had been engineered to have a propensity for criminal behavior, which would obviously be a different hypothesis.

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