Children with weak memories are more likely to engage in risky behaviors, research shows.
Children with weak memories are more likely to engage in risky behaviors like gambling, using alcohol and drugs and fighting, new research shows.
Daniel Romer of the University of Pennsylvania led the study that followed a group of 387 boys and girls, ages 10-12, in the Philadelphia area.
The implications of the findings, which Romer says are unprecedented, are that kids might be unwilling or even unable to think through the potential consequences of impulsive behavior.
"The kids who are impulsive, they might actually have the working memory, they just don't use it as much," Romer told Discovery News.
If the findings are accurate, Romer says that children who might potentially engage in risky behavior in the future could be identified and steered into a healthier adulthood before they even start their decline.
The children were tested using a series of established tests that examine impulsive behavior. They also took a separate series of tests designed to evaluate working memory, including solving problems that usually revolve around a long-term goal, like planning a weekly study.
The results were published in the journal, Neuropsychologia.
The findings provide hope for children who are at risk for what researchers and educators call a poor developmental trajectory. In addition to obvious consequences later in life, such as drug addiction and prison time, risky behavior in childhood also can lead to problems in brain development.
If weak working memory is an indicator of future risky behavior, educators and psychologists could intervene to stop this problem in children before it starts.
Romer says that not only is it easy to identify a weak working memory using the same tests used in the study, there are already a plethora of computer programs and books designed to improve it.
"The earlier you get to these kids, the better off everyone will be," Romer said.
Working memory begins to appear in children as early as age 5.
Notre Dame University cognitive psychologist Dawn Gondoli agrees that strengthening weak working memory is important in childhood development. She and a colleague are working on a computer-based exercise called Cogmed that builds working memory.
However, she reserves judgment on Romer's team's conclusion that working memory is an indicator for risky behavior. She suggests that other factors, such as behavioral disorders like ADHD, could also be involved.
"This is not to say that working memory isn't important in its own right, or that weak working memory, independent of other problems like aggression and conduct problems, couldn't account for such later difficulties," she told Discovery News. "It is intriguing, to say the least."
Josh Clark is a staff writer for HowStuffWorks.com.