Published in the journal Science, the study of more than 400 Beijing residents who were born around the time the controversial population policy was first introduced could have implications for China’s economy, researchers say.
“We found that individuals who grew up as single children as a result of China’s one-child policy are significantly less trusting, less trustworthy, more risk-averse, less competitive, more pessimistic, and less conscientious,” said University of Melbourne researcher Nisvan Erkal.
China introduced the policy in 1979 to combat population growth and family planning officials in Beijing have defended it in the past, saying China’s population — currently 1.3 billion — would have hit 1.7 billion without it.
The new study, “Little Emperors: Behavioural Impacts of China’s One-Child Policy”, based on research by Erkal, Monash University and Australian National University academics, found the group displayed distinct behaviour.
The scholars used a series of “economic games” — in which the 421 subjects born between 1975 and 1983 exchanged or invested small amounts of money, or made other economic decisions — to measure their levels of trust, risk-taking and competitiveness.
In one game, participants born under the One-Child Policy (OCP) were on average found to be less trusting than those born before, sharing less of an endowment with another player (46.1 percent compared to 50.6 percent).
They also returned less than those not born under the policy (30.4 percent versus 35.4 percent). The researchers said both of these differences were statistically significant.
The study found the differences persisted, even after the impact of demography and family background were controlled.
“We found that being born before or after the one-child policy best explains our observations,” Erkal, an associate professor, said.
In addition to the experiments, researchers also conducted personality surveys that they said revealed those born under the OCP were also “substantially more pessimistic, less conscientious, and possibly more neurotic”.
“The OCP can be thought of as a natural experiment which enables us to separate out the effect of being an only child from the effect of family background,” they wrote.
Fellow researcher Lisa Cameron from Monash said the effect could have economic implications.
“Our data shows that people born under the one-child policy were less likely to be in more risky occupations like self-employment,” she said.
“Thus there may be implications for China in terms of a decline in entrepreneurial ability.”
Cameron said researchers observed the negative effects of being an only child in China even if there was significant social contact with other children while growing up.
“We found that greater exposure to other children in childhood — for example, frequent interactions with cousins and/or attending childcare — was not a substitute for having siblings,” she said.
The one-child policy in fact permits some families to have several children. Parents in the countryside can have two children if their firstborn is a girl, while ethnic minority families are often exempt from birth restrictions.
Talk of phasing out the unpopular one-child policy has been mounting, with an influential think-tank with close links to the government recently proposing families be allowed to have two children by 2015.
The China Development Research Foundation (CDRF) called for a relaxation of the policy in October, saying the country had paid “a huge political and social cost” for the measure, which has been blamed for creating a demographic time-bomb.