People who were impatient during their adolescence do less well at school and in the labour market; they are also more likely to suffer from ill health and obesity later in life. These are among the findings of research by Bart Golsteyn, Hans Grönqvist and Lena Lindahl, published in the November 2014 issue of the Economic Journal.

Their study, which has tracked nearly 12,000 Swedes over almost five decades, also finds that men and children of above average intelligence benefit more from being patient in terms of such outcomes as school performance, health and labour market attachment later in life. The results suggest that early interventions that can help children to be more patient will potentially bring lifelong benefits.

In 1966, 11,907 Swedish children aged 13 years old were surveyed about their patience. Patience was measured by asking them to rate the extent to which they preferred 900 Swedish krona (equivalent to US$140) today to 9,000 krona ($1,400) in five years'' time. Children who answered that they preferred the immediate reward were classified as impatient; and children who wanted to delay the reward were classified as patient. About 15% of the subjects were found to be impatient.

The authors documented how the children''s level of patience affected their performance in primary school. They then followed the children for almost five decades using administrative data, observing their completed education, results on military IQ tests, fertility decisions, indicators of health, labour market success and lifetime income.

The results indicate that impatient adolescents have worse lifetime outcomes. The authors find that impatience significantly predicts weaker performance in primary and secondary school, lower educational attainment and lower scores on military IQ tests taken at age 19.

The magnitude of the discrepancy in school performance between patient and impatient children is substantial and similar to the gender gap in school performance between boys and girls. For example, the subjects who were classified as impatient were about 20% less likely to complete university compared with the subjects classified as patient.

The researchers also find that impatience significantly predicts lower earnings, higher risks of being unemployed or being on welfare, and worse health as measured by the risk of premature death. For example, impatient adolescents on average have 4-6% lower lifetime earnings compared with patient adolescents. Moreover, impatient individuals were about 25% more likely to suffer from obesity later in life.

The results also show that men benefit more from being patient than women. In addition, children who had above average IQ at the time of the survey benefitted more from being patient compared with children with below average IQ.

These results remain robust after controlling for potentially important confounding factors such as parents'' socioeconomic status and cognitive ability.

Co-author Hans Grönqvist comments:

''There is some research evidence that patience is malleable and that early interventions in the childhood environment may contribute to shaping individuals'' patience.

''The results of our study imply that such interventions have the potential to bring lifelong benefits.''


''Adolescent Time Preferences Predict Lifetime Outcomes'' by Bart Golsteyn, Hans Grönqvist and Lena Lindahl is forthcoming in the Economic Journal. Bart Golsteyn is at Maastricht University. Hans Grönqvist and Lena Lindahl are at Stockholm University.