Personality Change in China’s Single Children

Evidence from a new study published in Science suggests that the One Child Policy in China is negatively affecting the personality of new generations. It claims that single children born under the policy are less trustworthy and trusting of others, more risk-aversive and pessimistic, less competitive and less conscientious.

The OCP (One Child Policy), introduced in 1979, is one of the stricter initiatives used to restrict population growth. Breaking of the law has even lead to sterilisation and forced abortion, but the policy has been praised by the Chinese government for bringing countless families out of poverty [2]. In countryside villages parents are not limited in the number of children they choose to have as the policy only affects China’s cities. Nevertheless, there are circumstances in which a city-living couple may have more than one child, such as in the case of a severely disabled first child or families of ethnic minorities.

Professors at Monash University, the Australian National University and the University of Melbourne aimed to look into the impact of the OCP on personal characteristics of the new Chinese generations, such as altruism, trust, trust-worthiness, risk attitudes and competitiveness. Prof. Lisa Cameron and colleagues compared the data of 421 participants from Beijing in two cohorts: one of individuals born in 1975 or 1978, just before the one child policy was introduced, and the other of individuals born in 1980 or 1983, just after the policy. 

It is worth noting that not all children born under the OCP were single children (by 1983, 82% were). Similarly 27% of the participants in the pre-OCP cohort were only-children. This figure is likely due to the government’s encouragement of having fewer children in the period leading up to the official policy.

The cohorts were compared on a battery of tests including self-reported personality questionnaires (in which their answers where measure up against the Big Five personality types: openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness and neuroticism) and economic games – for instance the Risk Game. In this paradigm each participant is given 100 Yuan (approx. US$16/GB£10) and can invest any amount between 0 and 100 Yuan. There is a 50:50 chance that the investment may yield 0 Yuan  or triple the invested amount, determined by a coin toss. More risk-averse participants will invest less in the risky option.

Chinese propaganda poster for the One Child Policy (OCP).

It was found that individuals born under the OCP and those who were brought up as only-children as a result of the OCP were more pessimistic, scored higher on personality questions relating to neuroticism, and were also associated with lower conscientiousness scores. In the economic games these individuals were more risk-aversive, less trusting, less trustworthy and less competitive in the Risk, Trust, Competition and Dictator Games.

The results appear surprising, as although there is vast research across cultures on how growing up as an only-child affects personality (e.g. early maturing, perfectionism), birth order also has an effect in those with siblings; for example, the oldest child are more responsible, hard-working and natural leaders; the middle child are more independent, diplomatic and secretive about feelings; whilst the youngest are outgoing, rebellious, and often spoiled [3]. Yet, the study seems to suggest that it isn’t a matter of not having siblings, but rather the reason why not. In this instance the OCP seems to have strongly impacted family values in China.

The fact that parents dote on their only child in addition to the suggestion that these individuals tend to be “more self-centred, less cooperative, and less likely to get along with peers”, has apparently worried China about the social skills of their young people. So much so that some employers specify that they don’t want only-child employees. Therefore, perhaps the findings are rather in line with the current attitude to only children in China.

Prof. Cameron explained of the only-child generation:

“It was eye-opening how much more nervous and less trusting they were and implies that these behaviors could have wide-ranging economic and social implications.” [4]

“Trust is really important, not just social interactions but in terms of negotiations in business, working with colleagues in business, negotiating between firms….If we have lower levels of trust that could make these kinds of negotiations and interactions more difficult.” [2]

So what does this mean for China as a society and an economic power? Personally, I’m a bit sceptical that the effect of the policy is so great on the personality of the new Chinese generations, that it will damage their business and economic prospects. They seem to be doing alright so far! Nevertheless, these concerns have fuelled talk in the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) about abolishing the law, with the concern of “social problems and personality disorders in young people.” Whether evidence from this study, and those that will follow-up on it, will play a role in that remains to be seen.

1. Cameron, L., Erkal, N., Gangadharan, L. &  Meng, X. (2013). Little Emperors: Behavioral Impacts of China’s One-Child Policy. Science Express. 
2. The Guardian – China’s 1-child law makes less competitive adults?
3. Nelson, E. & Sibilsk, E. Birth Order and Personality.
4. CNN – China’s only children less trusting, avoid risk, study finds


3 thoughts on “Personality Change in China’s Single Children

  1. Pingback: 2013-01-25 Spike activity « Mind Hacks
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