Museum of Science and Industry

"In order to control others, one must first control oneself." This is a principle of aikido, the Japanese martial art. It is probably a motto of other things as well, but it's hard to bear verifying this: search the Internet for quotes about “controlling others,” and the results are terrifying. The truism does appear to have backing, though, as new research from the Max-Planck Institute for Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany links children's ability to understand others with their own impulse control.

The researchers monitored the brain activity of children playing two economic simulation games. In the "Dictator Game," one child decided how much of a reward to share with another child, who had no say in the amount received. In the "Ultimatum Game," the recipient has the option of rejecting the offer – in which case, nobody gets anything. The strategy for Person A is to figure out how much money can be kept without making Person B reject the offer out of spite.

An increase in strategic behavior was found in the 6-to-13-year-old players, which the researchers associated with impulse control improving with age. This would make sense: as we get older, we (hopefully) learn that we can sometimes get more "stuff" by behaving unselfishly or delaying our own gratification. So perhaps we don’t stop being selfish, but we do get smarter about it.

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