Natural history of the present

Natural history of the present

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.

Too many boys

Perhaps the most perverse unintended consequence of the one-child policy concerns its effect on sex ratios. I’ve written several times elsewhere about the enormous tragedy of “Asia’s missing women”. And I was very pleased, over the break, to finally see in print my first peer-reviewed article on the causes and consequences of Asia’s missing women. Published as part of a special issue of Evolutionary Psychology, it also constitutes my first success at publishing in that field.

As Nobel-winning economist Amartya Sen famously pointed out in 1990, in many parts of the world, especially in Asia, girls and women are so much more likely to be abused, neglected, or killed, that female life expectancy falls far short of male life expectancy. As a result as many as 200 million girls and women who should be alive today are not.

China, the world’s most populous nation, also has the world’s most biased sex ratio. India, the second most populous nation, is the second largest contributor to the “missing women” problem. Much of the scholarship surrounding Asia’s missing women gets distracted by the cultural differences involved, like China’s one-child policy, and India’s caste system and dowry customs. But, as sociologist Monica das Gupta argues, “the striking similarities [among countries] in patterns of son preference stem from commonalities in the kinship systems in these [countries]”.

And the places in which sex-ratios are most out of hand also share easy access to diagnostic ultrasound, and doctors who are unscrupulously over-eager to abort pregnancies. In China this happens because the government is so obsessive about population control. In India the problem comes from profit-driven clinics.

Not only do the millions of neglected daughters, female infanticides and sex-selective abortions constitute a massive humanitarian tragedy, the consequences of male-biased sex ratios may well turn out to be world-changing.

Whenever men are in oversupply on the mating market, they are forced to compete for dominance, pushing up the local rates of violence, homicide and lawlessness. The American frontier became the “Wild West” precisely because its towns contained too few single women. A surplus of young men with poor to non-existent marriage prospects propelled the Crusades and European colonialism.

And economist Lena Edlund estimates, using pre- and post-one-child data from China, that every one percent increase in the sex ratio results in a six percent increase in the rates of violent and property crime. In China, those places where sex-ratios are most male-biased are experiencing spikes in gambling, alcohol and drug abuse, kidnapping and trafficking of women.

I am hoping Lisa Cameron has the chance to study the sex-dependent effect of the one-child policy on her subjects. One would expect that the sex-biases that were worsened as the one-child policy took hold would have created interesting feedbacks that would have impacted young women and men differently.