Scientists claim China's youth are 'maladjusted'

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They were known as China's "little emperors" - the offspring of one-child families born after the country's draconian family-planning policy was introduced in 1979.

They became the "spoilt generation", at least this was the stereotype of the singleton children born in modern-day China based on little more than anecdotes. But now, scientists have produced the first convincing evidence to suggest that China's one-child generation has become a rather maladjusted lot.

The one-child policy came about after a rapid growth in the Chinese population in the 1950s and 1960s. It was strictly enforced in urban areas, with reports of forced abortions and sterilisations, as well as heavy financial and social penalties for those who transgressed the one-child law. Chinese authorities claimed the policy was a great success, preventing 250 million births between 1980 and 2000 and helping to set the country on the right demographic track for its spectacular economic growth.

However, more than 30 years after it began, an unintended consequence has emerged; it has fundamentally changed the psychology of young Chinese men and women, scientists said.

According to a new study, Chinese children born after the policy have grown up to become less altruistic and trusting, more timid, less competitive, more pessimistic and less conscientious than those born just before the policy. When scientists compared two age-groups born a few years before the policy was introduced, with two age-groups born just after, they found marked differences in the personality traits that influence social relationships, and which could have important ramifications for China's future.

"We find quite large impacts. Those who are the only children as a result of the policy are considerably less trusting, less trust-worthy, more risk averse, less competitive, more pessimistic, less conscientious and possibly also more neurotic," said Lisa Cameron of Monash University in Melbourne, Australia. "These behavioural impacts could have economic consequences in addition to the more obvious social implications."

"For instance, we find those born under the policy are less likely to be employed in risky occupations, such as self-employment, freelancing or the financial sector. So it may be the one-child policy generation will be less entrepreneurial," she said. The study analysed 421 people born a few years before and a few years after the 1979 policy, which resulted in a dramatic decline of large families. In 1975, just 27 per cent of Chinese families had only one child, whereas it was 91 per cent in 1983.

The scientists asked volunteers, now in their 20s and 30s, to carry out economics games designed to test features of their personality, using real money. The "dictator game" measured altruism, the "risk game" tested boldness and "competition game" looked at the tendency towards rivalry.

What became clear, the scientists say in their study published in the journal Science, is one-child offspring suffer from "sibling deprivation", meaning a lack of brothers or sisters appeared to make them more self-centred, less cooperative and less likely to get along with peers. This was like "a huge natural experiment" that allowed the scientists to distinguish between growing up as an only child in a one-child society, and being an only child in societies where parents had the choice, Dr Cameron said.

On paper, singleton children should have an advantage in they have the full attention of their parents and do not have to compete with siblings. But, as one commentator noted: "Perhaps the biggest surprise of the study is how thoroughly the only-child subjects lived up to their bad reputation."