What do we owe Raf & Laura Brannigan?

Self Control is one of the defining music hits of the 1980s. It was first released in 1984 by Italian singer-songwriter Raf (his first single). It was also released almost contemporaneously by Laura Brannigan.

The song includes these lyrics:

You take my self you take my self control
I I live among the creatures of the night
I haven’t got the will to try and fight

The first line of the quote I provided is wrong. Not in the sense that those words aren’t lyrics for the song, but in the sense that a person’s self-control does not get taken by someone else. I’ve stumbled on a number of papers published recently that noted something along these lines:

While the link between low self-control and several behavioral and social problems is widely supported, debate remains regarding the stability of and the genetic and environmental sources of variation in self-control. Using data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, Kindergarten Class 1998–1999 restricted data set, a sample of 360 twins was compared to a sample of 423 non-twins in order to examine the stability in self-control. The twin sample was also used to examine the genetic and environmental sources of stability in self-control. Findings indicated two stable classes for both the twin and singleton samples, and substantial stability in average self-control from kindergarten through fifth grade in both samples. The ACE decomposition model indicated strong genetic contributions to self-control (76%) with the remaining variation attributed to non-shared environment. Overall, the data suggest that self-control is identifiable early in life, stable across childhood, increasingly influenced by genes, and thus, is a critical focus for early intervention.

And it turns out that other papers show that self control really matters:

Policy-makers are considering large-scale programs aimed at self-control to improve citizens’ health and wealth and reduce crime. Experimental and economic studies suggest such programs could reap benefits. Yet, is self-control important for the health, wealth, and public safety of the population? Following a cohort of 1,000 children from birth to the age of 32 y, we show that childhood self-control predicts physical health, substance dependence, personal finances, and criminal offending outcomes, following a gradient of self-control. Effects of children’s self-control could be disentangled from their intelligence and social class as well as from mistakes they made as adolescents. In another cohort of 500 sibling-pairs, the sibling with lower self-control had poorer outcomes, despite shared family background. Interventions addressing self-control might reduce a panoply of societal costs, save taxpayers money, and promote prosperity.

Its been pointed out before that some aspect of criminality is also genetic. And criminal tendencies are also tied to behaviors that can increase the likelihood someone is poor.

All of which leads to some ethical dilemmas. I think most people are comfortable with the idea that society works better if there is a safety net that helps people who through no fault of their own are down on their luck. The “through no fault of their own” argument applies very easily to a hard working conscientious guy whose job got outsourced to China. Does it apply as smoothly to someone who accepts his natural tendency to avoid labor altogether? What about the 17 year old whose lack of self-control caused him to fail several grades and landed him in juvie for assault? Do you want him in the same classroom with your eighth grader?

But those are the stuff of late night college BS sessions. Try this out if you want a thorny problem… We all know there is a genetic component to homosexuality. What we don’t all know is that there is also a genetic component to homophobia. The study of genes is in its early stages and it is naive to think there aren’t many other examples of “trait X is heritable” and “dislike of trait X is heritable.” Can we all just get along if our genes can’t all get along?

The universe does not have a sense of humor.

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