The Unforeseen Social Effects of China’s One-Child Policy

By Breanna Draxler | January 11, 2013 4:20 pm

China’s One-Child Policy, now in its fourth decade, has achieved its goal of controlling population growth in the world’s most populous country, but it has also created major age and gender imbalances in the process.

In addition to sweeping social and economic instability, the policy has proven problematic on an individual level. An entire generation of Chinese has essentially grown up spoiled and without siblings. The resulting shift in social behavior is often referred to as the “little emperor effect,” and researchers have now quantified its impact in a study published this week in Science.

Researchers gathered 421 participants from urban Beijing, where the One-Child Policy has been strictly enforced since 1979. Participants were split into two groups, the first comprising people born in the few years leading up to the introduction of the policy, and the second comprising people born in the few years after. Thus the participants were all approximately the same age, but had grown up in very different social contexts.

Participants played four different cooperative games, which allowed researchers to isolate and measure particular behaviors such as altruism. The results indicate a stark contrast between the behaviors of pre- and post-policy participants.

One particular game focused on trust. The first player was given a sum of money, and had the option to either keep it or give a portion to a second player. Whatever sum the player chose to give away would be doubled, and the second player would then have the opportunity to give some back to the first player. In both player positions, the post-policy group chose to give away less money, demonstrating that they were generally less trusting of other players and likewise less trustworthy. In other games they shied away from risk and competition, tending instead toward pessimism and in some cases even neuroticism.

The researchers say parenting plays a major role in establishing these social behaviors, but without siblings in the picture, 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.

The effects of China’s One-Child Policy, then, are as much about the quality of its children as the quantity.

Image courtesy of Hung Chung Chih / shutterstock

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