Personality in Elementary School Can Predict Smoking and Drinking in High School

Personality traits that predispose children to risky behaviors in high school may already be apparent in elementary school, even if the actual smoking and drinking don’t come until later.

Although there are a range of factors that contribute to high school smoking and drinking, researchers tend to agree that some teens have personality traits that predispose them to these behaviors. To learn more about how these personality traits make themselves known in advance, psychologists tracked 1,897 children in 23 Kentucky public schools over the course of four years.

The psychologists focused on three personality traits related to impulsivity – the tendency to act without planning ahead.

The first trait was urgency, which has to do with how people act when they’re experiencing strong emotions. People higher in this personality trait are more likely to behave in a rash and uncontrolled way in response to strong positive or negative emotions.

The researchers also looked at the personality trait sensation seeking. People higher in this trait go out of their way to seek interesting, exciting and stimulating experiences.

Finally, the researchers considered conscientiousness. People who are more conscientious tend to be more disciplined, responsible and organized.

It turned out that fifth graders who scored higher on urgency and sensation seeking, but lower on conscientiousness, were more likely to drink and smoke when they got to ninth grade. Moreover, this pattern seemed to hold true regardless of children’s gender or race.

Naturally, this doesn’t mean that all children who exhibit this personality traits will take up drinking and smoking by the time they reach adolescence. But it does mean that children with certain personality traits are at higher risk for this behaviors. Knowing this could help psychologists develop interventions that more effectively reduce teen smoking and drinking in the future.

Image: Flickr/nerissa’s ring


  1. Cynthia on June 14, 2017 at 5:29 am

    Candy cigarette my dear childhood friend? That’s the industry for you, now knowing these tendencies I bet the approach of the industry will focus on how to take advantage of those tendencies. Start a campaign to ban tobacco and use the reasearch money to do so.

    • Neil Petersen on June 14, 2017 at 3:01 pm

      That’s an interesting point — the good folks over in the tobacco marketing department could be taking note of these studies too. But I don’t think banning tobacco is going to help anyone (after all, it’s already illegal for teens to smoke tobacco, and let’s not even get into marijuana). And defunding research definitely wouldn’t be doing these kids any favors.