Children already capable of self-control at an early age

Children learn how to control and slow down their own behaviour at an early age. This important skill initially requires a lot of brain activity, but becomes more and more efficient as they grow older and become adolescents, concludes PhD candidate Margot Schel.

On second thought, don’t send that angry e-mail

Margot Schel

Margot Schel

Everyone knows the sensation, either from their own experiences or by witnessing it elsewhere: the urge to punch someone but settling on a verbal reproach, or writing an angry e-mail but not sending it. Both are examples of stopping yourself (at the last minute), because it’s not a sensible thing to do. In short, you’re capable of controlling yourself. This type of self-control is the mirror image of the behaviour you’re controlling, behaviour spurred on by external stimuli. The same can be said of deciding not to beat that red light and hitting the brakes when the lights turn orange. This last example of self-regulation has been studied extensively, but the same cannot be said for self-control of anger.

Self-control gets easier as you grow up

Brain activity related to stopping, with and without a stop signal, show a lot of overlap: the orange regions are the parts where there is overlap.

Brain activity related to stopping, with and without a stop signal, show a lot of overlap: the orange regions are the parts where there is overlap.

Schel’s research has shown that the areas of the brain responsible for stopping yourself from punching someone in anger are largely the same regions that are active when you stop for an external signal like a red light. Schel also discovered that these areas are a lot more active in children, than they are in adults when faced with similar decisions. Schel and her supervisor, Professor of Developmental and Educational Psychology Eveline Crone, conclude from this that self-regulation becomes more efficient as children grow older and enter adolescence; self-control becomes easier and automatic. Schel also noted that your heart rate slows down when you are facing a ‘stop decision’.

Studying what isn’t there

The marble test

The marble test

It’s a complicated urge to study, as there isn’t an external stopping signal to influence people with. There is no proper, concrete way to measure this behaviour either, as you don’t actually do the task you intended to do. Schel therefore developed a computer simulation, in which test subjects could see a marble rolling down a slope. Test subjects were told that they had to stop the marble whenever it turned green, but that they were allowed to decide for themselves what to do when it stayed white. If they didn’t intervene, the marble would eventually hit the ground and break. During this study, Schel looked at whether and when people chose to stop the marble from breaking. She also measured any changes occurring in heart rate frequency and brain activity; two excellent gauges for studying behaviour in situations where behaviour is difficult to measure.

Subsequent studies to focus on concrete applications

Schel’s research was primarily intended to discover how people can control their own behaviour. She was also trying to find out how this elementary skill develops during childhood and adolescence. Her results pave the way for a subsequent study focusing on concrete applications, such as the level of self-control in children that have, for example, been diagnosed with ADHD or have a tendency towards aggression.

The research waspart of an international network that included researchers from the United Kingdom, Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands, who studied and measured these complex processes, and made significant steps towards better understanding them. It was financed with a subsidy from the European Science Foundation.

Coinciding with Schel’s PhD defence, the  symposium will be held on Wednesday 21 January, featuring (amongst others) eight foreign speakers.

(20 January 2015)

See also

Last Modified: 20-01-2015