SYDNEY: China’s one-child policy has created a generation that is more pessimistic, neurotic and risk averse – while being less trusting, trustworthy, competitive and conscientious.
That’s according to a new study published in U.S. journal Science, addressing concerns about a so-called ‘Little Emperor’ syndrome – thought to stem from a generation of only-children with unprecedented parental attention and pressure.
“Behavioural traits of China’s only-child generation remains one of the most interesting yet unanswered questions relating to China’s one-child policy,” said paper co-author and experimental economist Lata Gangadharan from Monash University in Melbourne, Australia.
Only-children take less risks
The Australian researchers used games from the field of experimental economics, along with personality trait surveys, on 421 individuals born one or three years before and after China introduced its controversial population-control policy in 1979.
The games tested for traits such as competitiveness, trust and risk taking.
For example, in ‘The Risk Game’ each participant is given 100 yuan (US$16), and the choice to invest as much of it as they like with a genuine 50:50 chance of either tripling their investment, or losing everything.
Those born under the one-child policy invested significantly less, at 58.1%, versus 66.4% for children born before the policy.
The study’s authors said they had accounted for other factors that could explain this and other differences. For example, they reduced the role age could play in the results by re-examining the data only from individuals born a year either side of the policy, and found similar results across all of the games.
Other factors – such as marital status, being a parent, and the age of parents – did not seem to explain the results either, Gangadharan said.
Findings not relevant for all only-children
The researchers also surveyed the participants to test for increasing capitalistic attitudes, in-line with changing Chinese society, but said they found no evidence that this played a role in the results.
“We believe our research will be of great interest to academics in the fields of psychology, economics, public policy and development,” Gangadharan said, adding that the impacts of family size may also be of interest to people planning families, or governments planning population growth policies.
However, Gangadharan also added that the research cannot necessarily be extrapolated to only-children from countries without a one-child policy. That’s because, in countries where having just one child is a choice rather than enforced, the decision cannot as easily be separated from other factors, such as family background.
Causality “a little too confident”
Daniel Costa, a researcher at the University of Sydney’s school of psychology, who wasn’t involved in the study, said the research was an important contribution of empirical evidence to a concept that has so far only been perpetuated by media coverage and anecdotal evidence.
However, he added that the study’s claims of causality – that is, that the one-child policy, and not some other factor, is to blame for the change in personality traits – was “a little too confident”.
For example, he said, “one may be able to argue that the establishment of diplomatic relations between the People’s Republic of China and the United States is a potential confound, as it occurred in the same year that the one-child policy was implemented.”
Costa conceded, however, that the researchers’ analysis of single children irrespective of whether they were born under the policy “addresses this issue to a certain extent”.
I highlighted one key point that explains their results, a point that the researchers apparently missed. The one-child policy likely is to blame for what they’ve found, but probably not in the way they think. The key difference, of course, is that under a one-child policy, people who come from parents who normally would have had larger families are underrepresented with respect to the previous generation!
Imagine what would happen if you instituted a one-child policy in a Western country. All of a sudden, traits common in people who normally reproduce rather prodigiously would become a significantly smaller fraction of the following generation. For American Whites, this would include political conservatism, among a host of other things. Traits normally associated with smaller families would become a bigger share of the subsequent births, including higher IQ, and quite likely, risk-aversion and neuroticism. I’d wager that all the traits they found to have increased in the post-one-child cohort were associated with smaller families in China beforehand.
Sorry, but, as I said before, parenting and the family environment don’t influence how children turn out.
Edit: There is one way the authors of the study could have addressed the above concern of mine: they could have looked only at first borns in the pre-one-child policy cohort. However, from looking at the paper (no free link, unfortunately), it doesn’t appear that they did.