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Impulsivity in children, worries, causes and later problems

A study just published has shown that impulsivity in 3 year olds predicted the likelihood of these children growing up to be adults addicted to gambling [1]. This was a huge study of over 1,000 children who were, aged 3, given a 90 minute assessment, and assigned to various categories which described how well regulated they were. Those categorised as most under controlled were over twice as likely to be addicted to gambling in adulthood, according to interviews with nearly 1000 adults between 22 and 32 years old. Interestingly neither IQ nor even socioeconomic status was anywhere near as predictive.


This is significant because we know just what a serious issue many of us are seeing in relation to children who are dysregulated. There seems to be something of an epidemic. Psychology research has consistently demonstrated that capacities for self-control, executive functioning and deferred gratification improve with age, but are also crucially dependent on attuned parenting. It is those with the least mature brains who do not manage to resist temptation in experiments like the marshmallow test, invented by Walter Mischels. In this famous test children are excruciatingly placed in front of a wonderfully tempting sweet and told that if they can resist temptation and not eat any of it for ten minutes they can then have two rather than one. It is only with maturity and the development of executive areas in the prefrontal cortex that we learn to defer gratification, and indeed recent research at the Max-Planck Institute in Leipzig  [2] confirmed how children became more strategic and less impulsive with more thickening of their left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, something which normally happens as they get a bit older but also requires sufficient good interpersonal experience.

We see this kind of brain development more with attuned and reflective parenting, which in turn leads to better emotional regulation and less reactive behaviour. We know that poor self-regulation is linked to behavioural problems, seen more in children who have not been well attuned to, or who have been traumatised. The ability to bear and manage a complex range of positive and negative feelings is seen more often in securely attached children and their parents. Good attachment figures are able to empathise with their children and help them to manage a range of feelings such as frustration, thus promoting self-regulatory skills. This in turn speeds the development of empathy. Professor Nancy Eisenberg from Arizona, who has trail-blazed  research about parenting, empathy and prosocial behaviours, consistently found that people who can regulate their own emotions are less likely to be distressed by other people’s emotions and as a consequence are far more likely to be able to show empathy [3]. A degree of self-regulation is necessary for empathy, such as the ability to not be overwhelmed by a stimulus. Empathy is partly an effortful process. Eisenberg suggest that this partly explains the link between attachment, empathy and self-regulation.

Stress, unsafe environments and a lack of safety will be detrimental to these capacities, as Mischels found with children from low-income families in the Bronx who tended to have below average ability to self-regulate compared to those from more privileged backgrounds. Rather like meditating, he found that these are skills that need to be practiced. He has even been involved in teaching children clever mental tricks which successfully aid their ability to resist temptation, such as pretending the sweets are really just plasticine. Marc Berman and John Johnides, colleagues of Mischels, have followed up some of Mischel’s original marshmallow test sample  some 40 years later [4]. They took 55 subjects, equal numbers of those who were originally low and high delayers on the marshmallow test, and gave them new tasks which use similar brain circuitry to delaying gratification, such as how well they can repress certain words that had been presented to them. They were also asked to do a go-stop task, in which they had to press a space bar when they saw a smiling face only on a screen, and then told to switch and only press the bar when seeing frowning faces; this is a challenge because they have to change and anyway smiles stimulate approach. They found that the original high delayers were better at both tasks by quite a way. The subjects were also placed in an fMRI scanner and the results were as we might expect, areas in the prefrontal cortex central to tasks like working memory, self-control and directed attention were much more active in the high delayers. Interestingly mindfulness practice  also leads to changes in similar areas of the brain [5], and such research gives hope that change is possible, albeit with effort.

The inability to self-regulate affects a child’s ability to negotiate peer and other relationships. In fact as researchers such as Mischel, shows [6], it predicts a huge swathe of outcomes right into adulthood, such as the likelihood of holding down a job, managing a stable romantic relationship, negotiating good friendships, to name but a few. Impulsivity at two increases the likelihood of ending up in juvenile justice system and being angry and violent in relationships [7]. Many other studies confirm the link between behavioural regulation and academic achievement, including Mischel’s early marshmallow experiments in which those who could delay gratification at the time later scored higher in their SATS. More recently Angela Duckworth and colleagues from Pennsylvania gave students self-control tests such as choosing between having a dollar immediately or two the next week. The ability to delay gratification was more predictive of later exam results than IQ [8]. We also know that not being able to regulate emotions badly affects how a child manages friendships and other relationships. Grazyna Kochanska from the University of Warsaw has shown how what she calls effortful control and moral development, as well as the ability to feel guilt, are closely linked. Children who can defer their gratification, such as waiting a few more minutes in the marshmallow test, are also more likely to stick to rules set by parents and teachers. Although temperament also plays a role, effortful control depends on feeling sufficiently safe and at ease, which for children means being protected by parents and also helped to regulate their feelings.

As contemporary corporations become increasingly sophisticated in their ability to coax us to purchase unthinkingly, maybe both children and adults are becoming less able to resist temptation and more likely to give in to impetuosity,  to be beguiled into new needs created by advertisers which fuel dopamine led urges to acquire possessions. The market for children’s goods in America is huge, some estimate as much as 40 billion dollars or more, maybe leading to a less mature ‘must have now’ mindset which we also see in adults. For this reason children more than ever need plenty of attuned and reflective attention from parents and other adults, as well as clear boundaries. It is no coincidence that so many children and adults professional work with who had poor early experiences have regulatory disorders and cannot inhibit socially inappropriate responses

[1]        W. S. Slutske, T. E. Moffitt, R. Poulton, and A. Caspi, ‘Undercontrolled Temperament at Age 3 Predicts Disordered Gambling at Age 32: A Longitudinal Study of a Complete Birth Cohort’, Psychological Science, Mar. 2012.

[2]        N. Steinbeis, B. C. Bernhardt, and T. Singer, ‘Impulse Control and Underlying Functions of the Left DLPFC Mediate Age-Related and Age-Independent Individual Differences in Strategic Social Behavior’, Neuron, vol. 73, no. 5, pp. 1040–1051, Mar. 2012.

[3]        N. Eisenberg, N. D. Eggum, and L. Di Giunta, ‘Empathy-related Responding: Associations with Prosocial Behavior, Aggression, and Intergroup Relations’, Soc Issues Policy Rev, vol. 4, no. 1, pp. 143–180, Dec. 2010.

[4]        B. J. Casey, L. H. Somerville, I. H. Gotlib, O. Ayduk, N. T. Franklin, M. K. Askren, J. Jonides, M. G. Berman, N. L. Wilson, T. Teslovich, G. Glover, V. Zayas, W. Mischel, and Y. Shoda, ‘Behavioral and Neural Correlates of Delay of Gratification 40 Years Later’, PNAS, vol. 108, no. 36, pp. 14998–15003, Jun. 2011.

[5]        S. W. Lazar, C. E. Kerr, R. H. Wasserman, J. R. Gray, D. N. Greve, M. T. Treadway, M. McGarvey, B. T. Quinn, J. A. Dusek, and H. Benson, ‘Meditation experience is associated with increased cortical thickness’, Neuroreport, vol. 16, no. 17, p. 1893–7, 2005.

[6]        J. Metcalfe and W. Mischel, ‘A hot/cool-system analysis of delay of gratification: Dynamics of willpower’, PSYCHOLOGICAL REVIEW-NEW YORK-, vol. 106, pp. 3–19, 1999.

[7]        M. Hauser, Moral Minds: How Nature Designed Our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong. London: Little Brown, 2008.

[8]        A. L. Duckworth, P. D. Quinn, and E. Tsukayama, ‘What no child left behind leaves behind: The roles of IQ and self-control in predicting standardized achievement test scores and report card grades.’, 2011.

Prejudice as a defence against feeling bad
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Monday, 30 November 2020

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