China’s one-child policy builds a generation of risk avoiders: study

A new Australian study has found China’s “little emperors” are less trusting and more pessimistic than those born before the one-child policy was implemented. Harald Groven

China’s one-child policy has built a generation of sensitive, less trusting and more risk-averse adults, according to a new Australian study.

The study from researchers at Monash University, the University of Melbourne, and Australian National University, found China’s “little emperors”, born after the introduction of the one-child policy in 1979, are less trusting, less competitive, less conscientious and more pessimistic than those born before the policy was introduced.

The study used a series of economic games to determine participant’s trust, risk-taking and willingness to compete, as well as personality surveys to assess optimism, sensitivity, nervousness and conscientiousness.

“We found really quite large and stark differences between the one-child policy generation and those born before the policy was introduced,” said Professor Lisa Cameron, director of the Monash Centre for Development Economics.

Clinical psychologist Dr Simon Crisp said the study strongly suggests there are real differences, however further research was required to confirm the differences and tease out the nuances more.

“The ‘tests’ of behaviour are artificial/inferential and not the same as real world behaviour which they did not measure,” Dr Crisp said.

“Personality variables (neuroticism and conscientiousness) which they found a difference are pretty broad and mildly correlational to other behaviours. So, getting too excited about them being risk-averse without specifying more particularly what and how this might manifest is rather theoretical and still needs more research to pin down what behaviours specifically might be different.”

Professor Cameron said existing literature had only compared single children with children with siblings. However, the one child-policy provided an opportunity to study the causal impact of being an only child, excluding family background effects.

“The tools of experimental economics are perfectly suited because they allow you to separate very specific traits and study them in a laboratory environment,” Professor Cameron said.

The researchers also asked participants what their occupation was and found those born under the one child policy were less likely to be in risky occupations.

“People born under one child policy are less likely to report that their parents encouraged them to trust in others, and less likely to report that their parents encouraged them to not be selfish.

"You see encouragement toward more conservative values which might be consistent with the risk results,” Professor Cameron said.

Dr Crisp said there wasn’t any control or measure of the impact of parenting factors in the analysis, and the impact of the one-child policy was likely to have some effect on parents over and above parents who chose to only have one child or could have more than one.

“So, the social-political context isn’t accounted for and may well impact on some of the differences they report.”