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Dev Psychol. 2011 Sep;47(5):1410-30. doi: 10.1037/a0023750.

Developmental trajectories in toddlers' self-restraint predict individual differences in executive functions 14 years later: a behavioral genetic analysis.

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Institute for Behavioral Genetics, 447 UCB, University of Colorado, Boulder, CO 80309, USA.


We examined whether self-restraint in early childhood predicted individual differences in 3 executive functions (EFs; inhibiting prepotent responses, updating working memory, and shifting task sets) in late adolescence in a sample of approximately 950 twins. At ages 14, 20, 24, and 36 months, the children were shown an attractive toy and told not to touch it for 30 s. Latency to touch the toy increased with age, and latent class growth modeling distinguished 2 groups of children that differed in their latencies to touch the toy at all 4 time points. Using confirmatory factor analysis, we decomposed the 3 EFs (measured with latent variables at age 17 years) into a Common EF factor (isomorphic to response inhibition ability) and 2 factors specific to updating and shifting. Less-restrained children had significantly lower scores on the Common EF factor, equivalent scores on the Updating-Specific factor, and higher scores on the Shifting-Specific factor than did the more-restrained children. The less-restrained group also had lower IQ scores, but this effect was entirely mediated by the EF components. Twin models indicated that the associations were primarily genetic in origin for the Common EF variable but split between genetics and nonshared environment for the Shifting-Specific variable. These results suggest a biological relation between individual differences in self-restraint and EFs, one that begins early in life and persists into late adolescence.

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