China's "Little Emperors" — the generations of only-children born under the government's rigid "one child" policy — are living up to their name.
A study published Thursday in the journal Science has found that compared with two groups of people born in the years before China began its harsh population-control policy, those born after were less conscientious, more risk-averse and less inclined to compete with — or cooperate with — others.
In short, a nation forged by collectivism, hard work and deprivation has created a generation of young adults that could be its undoing.
In China, the legions of children who commanded the undivided attention and resources of their parents have long been viewed with suspicion. But as they matured into adulthood, the "Little Emperors" could afford to roll their eyes at their fretting elders: Western research has consistently shown that only-children — singletons, as demographers call them — are no more selfish, lazy or maladjusted than their peers with siblings.
But China's elders, apparently, were right.
Initiated in 1979, the one-child policy has had its most dramatic effects in families living in China's populous urban centers, such as Beijing and Shanghai. These children are likely to make up the vanguard of the country's future government and business elites, experts say, so their psychological and behavioral attributes are a matter of national — and international — importance.
As the "Little Emperors" grew from toddlerhood to adolescence, studies largely failed to document what grandparents, teachers and eventually employers would come to believe with absolute conviction: that the sons and daughters of the one-child policy were spoiled, selfish and lazy.
At urban job fairs and in help-wanted ads, employers have been known to discourage singletons from applying. A group of delegates to the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference called on the government to scrap its one-child policy in 2007, citing "social problems and personality disorders in young people."
The mismatch between widespread attitudes in China and hard data from researchers was a puzzle to a pair of economists at Australia's Monash University — one of whom emigrated from China and has a single daughter born there under the one-child policy.
Lisa Cameron and Xin Meng set out to capture changes wrought by the one-child policy with a battery of economic games designed to measure a player's propensity toward altruism, trust, competitiveness and risk-taking.
Cameron and Xin recruited 215 people born in 1975 and 1978, before the policy began, and 208 people born in 1980 and 1983, after the policy was implemented. Among the older group, 55% had at least one sibling, compared with 15% in the younger group.
Each subject completed a 44-question personality inventory to gauge such traits as extroversion, agreeableness and negativity. The study volunteers also played games that are thought to reveal the true behavioral inclinations of players rather than their fleeting emotions or the values they claim to embrace. As they played through these games, the contrasts between the two groups were striking, the researchers said.
Compared with the adults born before the one-child rule, those born after were less likely to be altruistic in a game in which the player dictates how to split a pot of money. They exhibited less trust and trustworthiness in another game that tests a player's willingness to rely on an unseen partner to be fair.
They were more likely to favor a safe bet over a high-risk, high-reward proposition. And when offered the chance to compete against an anonymous player in an adding game or to let his or her solo performance dictate the reward, the "Little Emperors" more often shied from competition.
The personality inventories showed a similar skew: compared with those born before the one-child policy, those born after were significantly less likely to portray themselves as conscientious and more likely to own up to a greater degree of negativity.
Asked to rate the probability that the next day would be sunny, the singletons more often guessed on the gloomy side.
"They're quite large differences we're finding," Cameron said. "And they almost all line up with the stereotypes."
The study authors noted that there was a demonstrated link between risk-taking and entrepreneurism — a newly embraced value in China. Trust and altruism are qualities that foster the strength and stability of social institutions, they added.
In their report, Cameron and Xin were cautious about extending their findings about China's singletons beyond the borders of the People's Republic. But when stereotypes are similar across cultures, Cameron said in an interview, research findings that show those stereotypes to have some basis in reality often hold true across cultural bounds.
Toni Falbo, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Texas in Austin, said the findings weren't likely to apply in the United States and Europe, where one-child families are becoming increasingly common. "Our attitudes about child-rearing are very different," Falbo said.
Falbo has conducted research on singletons in China and the United States, and has found little evidence that such children fare worse. In fact, Falbo and others have found that with greater parental attention and investment in their education, only-children perform better academically than do those with siblings. Her views are widely cited by commentators and parents of singletons.
Falbo said she expected to find that the differences between singletons and people with siblings would turn out to be a more mixed bag of good and bad outcomes than the new study suggests. Praising the authors' innovative use of laboratory games, Falbo said they may be the key to discerning a clearer picture of how family size affects a child's psychology.