Skip to main content

Learn Self-Control, Stay Off the Dole

A study from Britain links poor self-control in childhood with adult unemployment.
  • Author:
  • Updated:
Looking for work. (Photo: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

Looking for work. (Photo: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

It’s an age-old debate: Are we the masters of our fate, capable of shaping our own destinies? Or are we at the mercy of our genetics and/or upbringing to such an extent that the trajectories of our lives are pretty much set early on?

Newly published research provides evidence supporting the latter, bleaker perspective.

An analysis of decades worth of data on two large, nationally representative groups of British citizens finds those who had problems with self-control as children had more trouble finding, and keeping, jobs as adults.

"Low childhood self-control predicted unemployment in adulthood, even decades later at age 50,” a research team led by Michael Daly of the University of Stirling writes in the journal Psychological Science. “The predictive strength of differences in childhood self-control was equal to, or greater than, that of intelligence."

"Childhood self-control was still a significant predictor (of unemployment) after we controlled for variation in intelligence, social class, and an extensive range of family and health factors."

In the first of two studies, Daly and his colleagues used data from the British Cohort Study, an ongoing project which follows the lives of more than 17,000 people born in England, Scotland, and Wales during a single week of 1970.

At age 10, each participant was rated by their teacher on their level of “attentional control” (Do they pay attention in class? Are they easily distracted?), and perseverance (whether they typically complete tasks).

The researchers looked at that data, and compared it with the participants' total months of unemployment from 1986 to 2008.

“Our analysis indicated that from youth to age 38, participants with low self-control experienced 1.6 times as many months of unemployment as those with high self-control,” they conclude.

A second study featured data from the British National Child Development Study, another ongoing longitudinal study of 17,638 people born in Britain in March 1958. Their self-control was measured at age seven, and again at age 11.

“Lower scores predicted a greater duration of accumulated unemployment by age 50, and higher unemployment at ages 23, 33, 42, and 50,” the researchers write. While the link between self-control and unemployment peaked when this group was in their mid-20s, it was still significant “in their fourth and fifth decades of life.”

In another measure of the strength of their findings, the researchers note that “Childhood self-control was still a significant predictor (of unemployment) after we controlled for variation in intelligence, social class, and an extensive range of family and health factors.”

So here is more evidence that emotional intelligence is crucial to success in life. Fortunately, there is some evidence that this vital skill can be taught, and more parents and educators are beginning to understand its importance.

The results echo those of one case study of a famous American. In his new documentary on Frank Sinatra currently running on HBO, director Alex Gibney paints a portrait of a man who could summon up great self-control when he really needed it (say, to learn a new skill), but otherwise acted impulsively to the point of recklessness.

His personal life was an ongoing disaster. His career was, of course, glorious—but it was regularly interrupted by bouts of unemployment.

Sinatra's mantra—his need to do things “my way”—is less appealing once you realize it's a synonym for the self-destructive childhood patterns he never truly escaped.

Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.