Delay of Gratification, Psychopathology, and Personality: Is Low Self-Control Specific to Externaiizing Problems?


  • This work was supported by several agencies: the Antisocial and Violent Behavior Branch of NIMH (Grant MH45548 to Terrie Moffitt); the University of Wisconsin Graduate School; the MacArthur Foundation-National Institute of Justice Program on Human Development and Criminal Behavior; and the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice (Grant No. 86-JN-CX-0009 to Rolf Loeber and Magda Stouthamer-Loeber). Robert Krueger was supported by a fellowship from the University of Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation and a Javits Fellowship from the U.S. Department of Education. Points of view or opinions in this document are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.

Address correspondence to Avshalom Caspi or Terrie E. Moffitt, Department of Psychology, University of Wisconsin, 1202 West Johnson Street, Madison, WI 53706.


We assessed the delay of gratification behavior of 428 twelve and thirteen-year-old boys, half of whom were known to manifest symptoms of behavioral disturbance. Consistent with the hypothesis that low self-control is a risk factor specific to externalizing (aggressive and delinquent) disorders, boys who showed signs of externalizing disorders tended to seek immediate gratification in a laboratory task more often than both nondisordered boys and boys who showed signs of internalizing (anxious and depressed) disorders. In addition, children who were able to delay immediate gratification were described by their mothers as ego controlled, ego resilient, conscientious, open to experience, and agreeable. These results suggest that poor delay of gratification may be one of a select number of specific risk factors for externalizing