Watch That Child

October 2, 2014

As any preschool teacher can attest, children’s temperaments at a very young age affect their interactions with peers, their willingness to follow directions, and how they handle discipline or setbacks. Terrie Moffitt and her Duke and Dunedin colleagues have discovered that personality traits identified as early as age three not only persist into adulthood, but they also consistently predict life trajectories. The study concluded that people generally fall into one of five categories.

40%: Well Adjusted

Most people belong to this group. They make friends easily, fit into social situations, have productive careers, and are open to new experiences. On the playground or in the boardroom, they generally get along well with others.

28%: Confident

These are the entrepreneurs and risk-takers— the kid who wants the swing to go higher and the carousel to go faster. As adults, they may embrace jobs that have a high-risk component or become thrill-seekers.

15%: Reserved

As children, these individuals may be happiest playing by themselves rather than in a boisterous group of peers. Shy and quiet, they tend to be introverted.

7%: Inhibited

These individuals have a hard time feeling at home in the world and are closed to new experiences. They prefer lives of isolation.

10%: Undercontrolled

This group includes people who struggle with controlling strong emotions like anger and rage. They’re likely to engage in antisocial and risky behaviors—getting into fights, drinking and smoking at a young age, and having frequent run-ins with the law. Much of Terrie Moffitt's work deals with identifying the factors at play in this worrisome latter category, who are disproportionately represented in crime statistics and who have higher rates of alcohol abuse, sexually transmitted diseases, and smoking-related illnesses. These highrate or “life-persistent” offenders begin victimizing others in early childhood—biting and hitting on the playground, bullying their peers—and continue on into adulthood, where they commit robberies, start bar fights, physically abuse their wives and children, and drive drunk.