Posted on February 26, 2019

The Heritability of Self-Control: A Meta-Analysis

Y.E. Willems, N. Boesen, J. Li, C. Finkenauer, and M. Bartels, Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, February 26, 2019


  • The present meta-analysis synthesized 31 twin studies.
  • Genes significantly contribute to differences in self-control: the overall heritability is 60%.
  • The heritability is the same for boys and girls, and across age.
  • The heritability is different across informants.
  • Considering genetic influences is key when investigating self-control.


Self-control is the ability to control one’s impulses when faced with challenges or temptations, and is robustly associated with physiological and psychological well-being. Twin studies show that self-control is heritable, but estimates range between 0% and 90%, making it difficult to draw firm conclusions. The aim of this study was to perform a meta-analysis to provide a quantitative overview of the heritability of self-control. A systematic search resulted in 31 included studies, 17 reporting on individual samples, based on a sample size of >30,000 twins, published between 1997 and 2018. Our results revealed an overall monozygotic twin correlation of .58, and an overall dizygotic twin correlation of .28, resulting in a heritability estimate of 60%. The heritability of self-control did not vary across gender or age. The heritability did differ across informants, with stronger heritability estimates based on parent report versus self-report or observations. This finding provides evidence that when aiming to understand individual differences in self-control, one should take genetic factors into account. Recommendations for future research are discussed.


[Editor’s Note: The complete study — with notes and charts — may be downloaded in PDF form at no charge here.]