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Are You Raising a Little Criminal?

A preference for immediate gratification, rather than a bigger reward later on, is a bad sign.

By Tom Jacobs


(Photo: kajojak/Flickr)

Do you sometimes get a gnawing feeling that a young teenager you know — perhaps even one in your immediate family — is destined for a life of crime? Here’s a simple test that can help you determine if your suspicions are justified: Offer them the choice of a small reward today, or a larger one next week. If they go for the first option, start locking your drawers.

That’s the implication of a newly published study that compared the attitudes of 13-year-old Swedish boys with their later police records (or lack thereof). It found those who couldn’t resist an offer of immediate gratification had “a significantly higher risk of criminal involvement later in life.”

Ever since psychologist Walter Mischel conducted his famous “marshmallow experiments” in the late 1960s and early ’70s, it has been clear that the ability to delay gratification is a key predictor of success later in life.

Kids who could resist the lure of an immediate treat tended to be happier, healthier, and more successful than those who could not. (To cite one specific measure: They scored higher on SAT tests, presumably because they had the patience to study beforehand.)

Perhaps the truism that short-term pain can lead to long-term gain is best taught by example.

It has long been suggested that this lack of impulse control is also a predictor of criminal behavior, but that was basically a hunch. A new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences provides evidence backing up this assertion.

A research team led by Lena Lindahl of Stockholm University examined the records of 6,749 young Swedish males, each of whom took the same survey in 1966, when they were 13 years old. The researchers specifically looked at the answer they gave to one question: Would you rather get 900 Swedish krona right now (about $138) or 9,000 krona in five years (about $1,380)? They answered on a five-point scale, from “Certainly the immediate payout” to “Definitely the delayed reward.”

Even with the huge difference in payouts, 13 percent of the children marked one of the first two options, while six percent said they definitely wanted the smaller amount right now.

The researchers compared these results with databases on juvenile delinquency and criminal behavior between ages 15 and 31.

After adjusting for socioeconomic status, they found a stronger need for immediate gratification “significantly predicts criminal activity.”

“The link is much stronger for property crime (as opposed to violent offenses), and among males with low intelligence,” they write.

Lindahl and her colleagues are careful to note that a difficulty in delaying gratification — formally known as temporal discounting — is distinct from simple impulse control. If an inability to control one’s emotions was the issue, they presumably would have seen a link with violent crimes of passion, as opposed to break-ins and the like.

The results suggest harsher punishments, such as longer sentences, may not faze people whose focus is on their immediate needs and wants. (Who’s thinking ahead to year four of a five-year prison term?) Rather, they write, “policies that increase the likelihood of being caught, such as increased surveillance or police resources,” might be more effective deterrents.

So what to do about that I-want-it-now youngster in your life? That’s a tougher question. Unfortunately, we have yet to come up with effective ways of teaching the importance of such trade-offs.

But parents can, of course, model the sort of behavior they want their children to engage in. Perhaps the truism that short-term pain can lead to long-term gain is best taught by example.