We create our health in part through our daily choices and actions, and of all the many behaviors that might negatively impact our well-being, smoking cigarettes ranks among the worst. Some researchers have hypothesized that differences in smoking may be influenced by our personality traits. Now, a new study finds conscientious children are less likely to smoke in later life.

“Childhood conscientiousness emerged as a stronger predictor of smoking than adulthood conscientiousness,” Dr. Michael Pluess, Senior Lecturer in Developmental Psychology, Queen Mary University of London, told Medical Daily.

Generally, people from lower socioeconomic groups have lower life expectancy and more health problems than those in higher status groups, and certain health behaviors, such as smoking, appear to follow suit. Recent research also has linked specific personality traits to health behaviors. In particular, conscientiousness seems to go hand-in-hand with a longer life expectancy and positive health actions.

Is conscientiousness — the tendency to be self-controlled, dutiful, achievement-oriented, and reliable — a cause or a consequence of social inequities? Is conscientiousness linked to smoking? These are some of the questions explored by Pluess and his co-researcher Dr. Mel Bartley, Department of Epidemiology and Public Health, University College London in their new study.

Pluess and Barley began by gathering data from the 1958 National Child Development Study. This continuing study began when scientists first collected information on 18,558 babies born during one week in 1958 throughout England, Scotland, and Wales. Since then, follow-up assessments have been undertaken when the babies reached ages 7, 11, 16, 23, 33, 42, 46, and 50. (At the most recent sweep, only 9,790 or slightly more than half of the original members provided data.)

The researchers found childhood conscientiousness was a significant predictor of smoking at age 50. It explained just about five percent of the social gradient independent of educational attainment, childhood intelligence measures, attention and conduct problems, and childhood social class. This admittedly small but still significant proportion of the social gradiant suggests to the authors that, as they write in their published research, “conscientiousness is a predictor of adult smoking behavior rather than a result of exposure to social inequality across life.”

Pluess further explained to Medical Daily that conscientiousness is relatively stable throughout our lifetimes. “However, it is important to appreciate that personality does change slightly across the life course,” he noted. “To what degree it does, though, is an on-going debate in the field.”

Source: Pluess M, Bartley M. Childhood conscientiousness predicts the social gradient of smoking in adulthood: a life course analysis. J Epidemiol Community Health. 2015.