Behavioural consequences of Chinese social engineering

I’m just back from holidays and wading through some of the exciting science published while I was temporarily untethered from the Internet. One of the most interesting was a Science paper led by Lisa Cameron of Monash University entitled “Little emperors: behavioural impacts of China’s one child policy.” If you’re a regular reader of The Conversation, you may well have caught Charis Palmer’s excellent report on the study.

The Chinese government introduced the one-child policy in the late 1970’s to slow China’s population growth. The policy is far from uniformly enforced. In the largest cities very few people are permitted to have a second child, but parents in rural areas and members of ethnic minorities can apply for permission to have a second child and sometimes even a third. Particularly if both parents are only children or if the first child is a girl.

The one-child policy draws criticism from almost every imaginable angle. It is often applied coercively, and tales of forced abortions grab headlines outside China. But its many unintended consequences have also turned it into history’s largest ever exercise in top-down social engineering.

Within China, the resulting generation of only children are seen as self-centred “Little Emperors”, doted on by their parents. But how much of that generation’s bad press is real? Younger cohorts everywhere get painted as self-obsessed and feckless. At the moment much of the talk in the English-speaking world concerns the failings of Generation Y.

Cameron and her colleagues sought to test whether the one-child generation are truly “Little Emperors” and whether the one-child policy (OCP) is the cause. From Beijing, where the strictest form of the OCP has been in place since 1979, they recruited 421 Beijing residents born in either 1975, 1978, 1980 or 1983. The subjects completed a series of games that economists use to measure traits such as altruism, trustworthiness, trust, willingness to take risks, and competitiveness. They also completed an inventory that measures the Big Five personality traits (Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness and Neuroticism).

Young adults who were raised as only children because of China’s one-child policy were less inclined to trust others, less trustworthy, more risk-averse, less competitive, more pessimistic and less conscientious. As Maria Histendahl says in her commentary on the paper, “the biggest surprise of the study is how thoroughly the only-child subjects lived up to their bad reputation”.

Cameron’s paper, of course, doesn’t settle every aspect of how the one-child policy effected the “Little Emperor” syndrome. But it provides a tidy example of how government policy and local conditions can dramatically alter not only the behaviour but also the personalities of individuals. I can only predict that larger studies of the aggregate outcomes will follow. Continue reading Behavioural consequences of Chinese social engineering