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Working paper

Self-control: determinants, life outcomes and intergenerational implications

Psychology Mental health

Self-control is fundamental to understanding human behavior. The ability to exert self-control assists people in overriding their immediate impulses, resisting temptation, and, as a consequence, achieving their long-term goals. Those with a greater capacity for self-control are predicted to have a more healthy lifestyle, achieve higher educational attainment, have more labor market success, and experience greater financial well-being. These key outcomes not only shape people’s personal life chances, but can also drive a society’s overall living standards through their effects on productivity. Consequently, a better understanding of these life outcomes is of vital interest to politicians and economists alike.

We make an important contribution by providing the first comprehensive empirical understanding of self-control using novel nationally representative data from the 2017 Innovation Sample of the German Socio-Economic Panel (SOEP–IS) which now includes a well-established measure of trait self-control. The richness of these data allows us to provide comprehensive evidence on: (i) the determinants of adult self-control; (ii) the role of self-control in predicting key life outcomes in multiple domains (i.e., educational attainment, health and health-related behaviors, labor market outcomes, financial well-being, and life satisfaction); and (iii) the intergenerational implications of parental self-control for child development. Throughout, we discuss our findings in the light of the existing literature in personality and developmental psychology and behavioral economics. Moreover, we explore whether trait self-control has explanatory power beyond that attributable to other commonly utilized measures of personality traits and economic preferences. While much of our analysis is descriptive, we exploit the fall of the Berlin Wall and a major educational reform as natural experiments to generate causal estimates of the impact of institutions and education on Germans’ self-control.

We find that people’s age as well as the political and economic institutions they are exposed to have an economically meaningful impact on their level of self-control. A higher degree of self-control is, in turn, associated with better health, educational and labor market outcomes as well as greater financial and overall well-being. Parents’ self-control is linked to reduced behavioral problems among their children. In sum, our results emphasize that higher levels of self-control have broad benefits for individuals, their offspring, and societies as a whole. As a consequence, self-control emerges as a clear target for intervention policies. Such interventions exist and have been shown to be successful when targeted at children. Our results also contribute to the field of personality psychology and economics as they demonstrate that self-control adds significant explanatory power on top of the more commonly used Big Five personality traits and economic preference measures.

Publication Details
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All Rights Reserved
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Life Course Centre Working Paper No. 2019–17