Ditching the Years of Living Dangerously

Childhood temperament may predict risk-takingbehavior in adults.

By Annie Murphy Paul, published on March 1, 1998 - last reviewed on August 30, 2004

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.

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.