Ditching the Years of Living Dangerously

While kids are still learning to walk and talk, psychologists may be able to predict which of them will drive dangerously, abuse alcohol and engage in unsafe sex as young adults.

Researchers from the University of Wisconsin followed 961 residents of Dunedin, New Zealand, from birth on. They performed extensive evaluations of them every two to three years.

At age 21, they were asked about the kinds of risky behavior they engaged in. Those who reported that they abused alcohol, drove recklessly, had unprotected sex with multiple partners, or had violent crime records, all tended to have scored the same way on personality tests three years earlier: low on traditionalism, harm avoidance, control, and social closeness, and high on aggression. More surprisingly, researchers found that this particular cluster of personality characteristics could be predicted by the subjects' temperaments at age three. Toddlers who were rated as "undercontrolled" (irritable, impulsive, and emotionally volatile) were twice as likely to be involved in risky behaviors almost two decades later.

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These are not daring free spirits, but troubled, angry young people who have trouble forming relationships, observes Avshalom Caspi, Ph.D., lead author of the study. And because their behavior poses a danger not only to themselves but to others, Caspi sees an opportunity to use the the research in the design of more effective health education campaigns. The findings would allow campaigns to target their message, since they specify just what sort of person needs to be reached.

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