A Chinese family coaxes their son to pose in a "little emperor" costume at a park in Beijing, Sept. 22, 2009. China introduced its one-child policy for urban Chinese in 1976.


A recently released Australian study has shown some interesting psychological effects of China’s one child policy; effects which could have economic consequences for China.  The study Little Emperors: Behavioral Impacts of China’s One-Child Policy, was published in the journal “Science” and involved 421 Beijing residents born between 1975 and 1983. 

The researchers considered that the one child policy “can be thought of as a natural experiment which enables [them] to separate out the effect of being an only child from the effect of family background”.  They used a series of “economic games” to study behaviour traits of children born just before, and just after, the policy was put into place in 1979. 

The study found that individuals who grew up as only children as a result of the policy displayed distinctive behaviour.  Interestingly, it also found that frequent interaction with cousins or friends didn’t reverse the distinctive traits.

The only children were found to be significantly less trusting, less trustworthy, more risk-averse, less competitive, more pessimistic, and less conscientious.  For example, in one of the ‘games’, 66.4 percent of children born pre-policy were willing to invest 100 yuan with a 50/50 risk of tripling their return or losing it all, while only 51.8 percent born after took the risk.

In addition to the experiments, researchers conducted personality surveys which they said revealed that children born under the one-child policy were also “substantially more pessimistic, less conscientious, and possibly more neurotic”. 

While parenting plays a major role in establishing social behaviors, without siblings parents had fewer opportunities to teach social skills such as sharing. The researchers warn that if the personalities of an entire generation tend toward being self-centered and uncooperative, it could have major ramifications on Chinese society as a whole.  For example, they could mean that China’s generation of only children are less likely to be successful entrepreneurs and that consequently China may not have the same economic future it otherwise would. 

Hopefully, indications that the one child policy may soon be relaxed will stop more children being deprived of the possiblity of brothers and sisters.  This study surely also shows that all children benefit from having other siblings to grow up and learn to cooperate with.

Shannon Roberts

Shannon Roberts is co-editor of MercatorNet's blog on population issues, Demography is Destiny. While she has a background as a barrister, writing has been a life-long passion and she has contributed...