One-child policy: China's army of little emperors

The one-child policy has fundamentally changed the psychology of a generation

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” of teenagers who didn’t experience the joys and heartache of sibling rivalry or share and share alike – at least this was the simplistic stereotype of the singleton children born in modern China, based on little more than anecdote and hearsay.

But now, scientists have produced the first convincing evidence to suggest that the one-child generation of China has indeed 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 dared to transgress the one-child law.

Chinese authorities claimed the policy was a great success, preventing more than 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.

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 the Chinese who were born just before the policy, they claimed.

The study has broken new ground by analysing the attitudes of young Chinese adults using games designed by economists to test behaviour and intentions, such as whether the subjects are likely to share something with a stranger or are ready to trust someone they do not know.

When the scientists compared two age groups born a few years before the policy was introduced, with two age groups born just after, they were surprised to find such marked differences in the kind of personality traits which influence social relationships, that 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 trustworthy, 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 that 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 that the one-child policy generation will be less entrepreneurial,” she said.

The study analysed 421 individuals born just 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 consisted of only one child, whereas it was nearly 91 per cent in 1983.

The scientists asked the volunteers, now in their 20s and 30s, to carry out a series of economics games designed to test features of their personality, using real money as an incentive. The “dictator game” measured altruism, the “risk game” tested boldness and the “competition game” looked at rivalry.

“Economic experiments have the advantage of allowing the researcher to observe particular, well-defined types of behaviour,” Dr Cameron said.

“Experimental participants are also incentivised with money, the amount of which depends on the decision made in the experiment, which, experimental economists argue, provides a greater motivation for participants to reveal their true preferences,” she explained.

What became clear, the scientists say in their study published in the journal Science, is that one-child offspring suffer from what they term “sibling deprivation”, meaning that a lack of brothers or sisters appeared to make them more self-centred, less co-operative and less likely to get along with their peer group.

Previous work on one-child families in the West, where parents have largely chosen to have just one baby, have found little differences in behaviour between them and the offspring of larger families. What was different here was the ability to look at a whole society where parents were coerced into having no more than one child.

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 that they have the full attention of their parents and do not have to compete with siblings. But, in practice, the findings suggest that singletons may have missed out on the rough and tumble and give and take of growing up with other children of about the same age.

As one commentator noted: “Perhaps the biggest surprise of the study is how thoroughly the only-child subjects lived up to their bad reputation.”

Voices
The Sumatran tiger, endemic to the Indonesian island of Sumatra, is an endangered species
voicesJonathon Porritt: The wild tiger population is thought to have dropped by 97 per cent since 1900
News
news
Arts and Entertainment
Story line: Susanoo slays the Yamata no Orochi serpent in the Japanese version of a myth dating back 40,000 years
arts + entsApplying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
Life and Style
Popular plonk: Lambrusco is selling strong
Food + drinkNaff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
News
Gardai wait for the naked man, who had gone for a skinny dip in Belfast Lough
newsTwo skinny dippers threatened with inclusion on sex offenders’ register as naturists criminalised
News
Shake down: Michelle and Barack Obama bump knuckles before an election night rally in Minnesota in 2008, the 'Washington Post' called it 'the fist bump heard round the world'
newsThe pound, a.k.a. the dap, greatly improves hygiene
Arts and Entertainment
La Roux
music
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Fellows as John Shuttleworth
comedySean O'Grady joins Graham Fellows down his local Spar
News
people
News
Ross Burden pictured in 2002
people
News
Elisabeth Murdoch: The 44-year-old said she felt a responsibility to 'stand up and be counted’'
media... says Rupert Murdoch
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Extras
indybest
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Junior / Graduate Application Support Engineer

£26000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly successful international media organ...

QA Manager - North Manchester - Nuclear & MOD - £40k+

£35000 - £41000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: QA Manager -...

Property Finance Partner

Very Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: LONDON - BANKING / PROPERTY FINANCE - ...

Agile Tester

£28000 - £30000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: An ambitious...

Day In a Page

A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

A new Russian revolution

Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

Standing my ground

If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
The man who dared to go on holiday

The man who dared to go on holiday

New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

The Guest List 2014

Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

Jokes on Hollywood

With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

Voted for by the British public, the artworks on Art Everywhere posters may be the only place where they can be seen
Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

Blanche Marvin reveals how Tennessee Williams used her name and an off-the-cuff remark to create an iconic character
Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

Websites offering your ebooks for nothing is only the latest disrespect the modern writer is subjected to, says DJ Taylor
Edinburgh Fringe 2014: The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee

Edinburgh Fringe 2014

The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee
Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

The woman stepping down as chair of the Heritage Lottery Fund is worried