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Preschool Behavior May Predict Addiction

When parents send their kids off to preschool, they hope that the experience will provide ample opportunity for learning to get along well with others. Besides finger painting, snacks and learning letters, children learn the basics of friendship.

A new study says that how a preschooler exhibits those behaviors may provide clues into the possibility of later addictions. The study, conducted in New Zealand, involved approximately 1,000 individuals followed over more than 30 years.

The study shows that behavior at the age of three may provide clues about the risk of developing an addiction in later years. The addictions may involve anything from gambling to substance use disorders.

The longitudinal study has looked at psychological, economic and intellectual factors as the participants grew from birth to their 30s. All of the participants were born in 1972 or 1973 in Dunedin, New Zealand.

The study’s new findings about preschool behavior are published in a recent edition of the journal Psychological Science. The analysis showed that when children exhibit an "under-controlled" temperament at age three, they suffered more than twice the risk of having problems with gambling by the ages of 21 and 32.

Under-controlled temperament was defined as having a lack of self control, as well as impulsivity and high levels of negativity. About ten percent of the children involved with the study were observed as falling into the under-controlled temperament category.

The associations between under-controlled temperaments at age three and addictive behaviors in adulthood were consistent even after the researchers controlled for variables like IQ, socioeconomic status and gender.

In addition, the adults who were observed for the behaviors at age three still rated high on perceptions of alienation and high levels of negative emotion when they were assessed in their 30s. The individuals were also found to be less socially agreeable and less conscientious when they were compared with their peers.

The study’s lead author, Wendy Slutske, a professor of psychological science at the University of Missouri, explains that the findings provide insight into questions of causality. It is often difficult, says Slutske, to determine whether the negative feelings lead to addiction or vice versa.

In the case of the New Zealand study, the researchers were able to observe the presence of the negative behavior patterns long before the gambling behavior was initiated. The findings provide an important key to understanding the development of gambling addictions.

In addition, the study provides insight into the nature of the variables that contribute to disordered gambling behaviors. However, experts are not sure how the two components of behavior interact. For instance, individuals may initiate addictive behavior to self-medicate the negative feelings they experience. Others may simply become addicted to gambling because of a low level of impulse control.

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