Uniquely human self‐control begins at school age

Esther Herrmann, Antonia Misch, Victoria Hernandez‐Lloreda, Michael Tomasello

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


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.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)979-993
JournalDevelopmental Science
Issue number6
Early online date20 Dec 2014
Publication statusPublished - 1 Nov 2015

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