China’s One-Child Policy Yields Adults Fearing Risk

China’s one-child policy has produced adults that tend to have personality traits unsuited for starting businesses or managing companies, according to a study that adds to economic concerns surrounding the rule.

Using surveys of 421 men and women in Beijing and testing their skills in economic games, researchers in Australia found those born after the 1979 policy were more pessimistic, nervous, less conscientious, less competitive and more risk averse. They also found them to be 23 percent less prone to choose an occupation that entails business risk, such as becoming a stockbroker, entrepreneur or private firm manager.

The study, published yesterday in the journal Science, adds a new twist to evidence suggesting that China’s policy to limit population growth is harming its economy. Research has already tied the rule to worker shortages. Risk aversion may negatively affect the economy if it leads to fewer people starting businesses in their communities, said study author Lisa Cameron.

“Many people have talked about China’s difficulties with its little emperors,” said Cameron, head of Monash University’s Centre for Development Economics in Melbourne, using a term to denote the excessive attention only-children seem to get from their parents. “There wasn’t a rigorous scientific study on the behavioral impact of the policy before.”

China started the policy to curb a population growing 1.4 percent a year and to promote prosperity. Some exceptions to the policy are allowed, such as permitting rural families to have a second child if the first is a girl, while those who can afford to pay a fine can have a second or third baby. In the nation of 1.35 billion people, about 100 million families have just one child, according to the government.

Trust Game

Study participants, including those born before and after the policy was instituted in 1979, took part in games including one that measures how much they trust one another and are themselves trustworthy. A player decides how much of a 100 yuan ($16) endowment to send a game partner, who then decides how much to give back, with each particpants’s potential returns higher the more money they gave up.

Only-child individuals sent on average 16 percentage points less of the endowment to the other player and returned 11 percentage points less of what they received. The participants were recruited so that about a quarter of the sample pool was each drawn from people born in 1975, 1978, 1980, and 1983.

Trust “is an important component of social capital and an important basis for all sorts of commercial transactions and interactions,” said Cameron.


Behavior in economic games correlates with the way people act outside the experimental setting, the researchers said, with implications for the wider society. They cited previous studies that showed Chinese farmers that took more risk in experimental games were more inclined to adopt new technologies and use less pesticide, while borrowers in Peru found more trustworthy in trust games had a greater likelihood of repaying loans.

Xin Meng, a co-author of the study who grew up in Beijing and left China in 1988, said she detects a different behavioral attitude among the only-child population compared with the previous generation. A 2011 incident where a two-year-old girl in southern China died after she was struck by two vans and ignored by 18 passersby caused a furor, with domestic media and Internet users criticizing Chinese society for a lack of morality.

“An incident like this is just unthinkable 20 years ago,” said Meng, a professor of economics at the Australian National University in Canberra. “If you’ve lived in the Chinese society for a long time, you can sense the difference as people become more individualistic.”

Other Consequences

Research has also shown there may be surprising health consequences to the one-child rule by exacerbating China’s diabetes epidemic.

The effect of the policy on the behavior of people born long after the policy’s introduction may be magnified as later groups will have grown up with very limited extended family and in a society dominated by only children, the authors wrote.

“The cohort we studied were born just after the policy started and their parents would have many siblings with their own children, so they grow up with a lot of cousins,” Meng said. “If the policy does not change there will be ramifications, not just from behavioral issues, but also the shrinking labor force supply due to the aging population.”

— With assistance by Daryl Loo

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