The front page of today’s Times says: ‘Three-year-olds can be identified as criminals of the future.’ Yesterday, the Guardian reported ‘“High social cost” adults can be predicted from as young as three’. Meanwhile, the BBC and Daily Mail went with ‘brain tests’ at age three can ‘predict children’s futures’.
These stories come from an article published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour. It was written by an international group of researchers who have been crunching data from a study of just over 1,000 individuals born in the New Zealand city of Dunedin between 1972 and 1973. The research team is made up of psychologists, psychiatrists, behavioural scientists and a statistician, and all have a strong interest in the relationship between genes and environment.
Their attention-grabbing claim is that an assessment of the IQ, social deprivation, maltreatment and self-control of members of the sample, carried out at the age of three, was predictive of the ‘economic burden’ they would place on society by the age of 38. The study claims that 20 per cent of the cohort was responsible for the majority of ‘high cost’ behaviours as they reached mid-life. The eight behaviours they considered to be ‘high cost’ to the public purse were:
- producing a household where the biological father was absent
- carrying ‘excess weight’
- experiencing hospital stays
- requiring medical prescriptions
- making injury claims to public-insurance funds
- committing a crime (other than traffic offences)
- claiming social-welfare benefits
They apparently found that each of these individual behaviours was concentrated in 20 per cent of the sample, as, when aggregated, were multiple high-risk behaviours. They did not put a value on these burdens, leaving us to ponder whether a smoker pays in more in taxes than he or she take out in healthcare, or whether a non-resident father can be assumed to be ‘feckless’, or indeed whether all people who carry ‘excess weight’ are a drain on health services.
The study conjures up an image of an unedifying group of fat, fertile, sick, sponging criminals, with fags hanging out their mouths, dragging down the 80 per cent of respectable people who work hard and look after themselves. And this is no accident. I think the research was designed to find precisely this; all the number-crunching was designed to construct a picture of the ‘shameless’. Doing my best to delve into the impenetrable methodology, it struck me that, actually, many of the problematic behaviours are actually spread across the sample. This is what I have worked out:
- 30 per cent were in no high-cost groups
- 27 per cent were in one high-cost group
- 21 per cent were in two high-cost groups
- seven per cent were in three
- seven per cent were in four
- five per cent were in five
- two per cent were in six
- one per cent were in seven
- less than one per cent were in all eight groups