Uniquely human self-control begins at school age


Human beings have remarkable skills of self-control, but the evolutionary origins of these skills are unknown. Here we compare children at 3 and 6 years of age with one of humans’ two nearest relatives, chimpanzees, on a battery of reactivity and self-control tasks. Three-year-old children and chimpanzees were very similar in their abilities to resist an impulse for immediate gratification, repeat a previously successful action, attend to a distracting noise, and quit in the face of repeated failure. Six-year-old children were more skillful than either 3-year-olds or chimpanzees at controlling their impulses. These results suggest that humans’ most fundamental skills of self-control – as part of the overall decision-making process – are a part of their general great ape heritage, and that their species-unique skills of self-control begin at around the age at which many children begin formal schooling.

Biology Letters