Are Only Children More Selfish Than Those With Siblings?

A new study challenges a body of research that contributes to the stereotyping of only children.

If your case for having a second kid is that you don’t want the first one to be selfish, you owe your family a better argument (and only children an apology), a new study suggests. Research out of Hiroshima University analyzes China’s “Little Emperor” generation—those born during China’s one-child policy, which ran from 1979 until 2015—and finds that they are no more selfish than other kids. In a word, children in China seem to have figured out social skills without sibling rivalries.

“Our study suggests that increasing the share of one-child generation workers in a given workforce is not going to negatively affect cooperation amongst workers,” according to the study.

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The research involved a series of in-person interviews with Chinese workers, and scored their willingness to cooperate on a 5-point scale. The results suggest that workers were generally cooperative, whether or not they were born under China’s one-child policy. Still, the researchers credit much of this willingness to work together to cultural norms, so American only-children may not be off the hook. “Chinese culture, influenced by the Confucius roots, makes one-child policy generation workers cooperative although this generation is self-centric in the daily life,” they write.

The findings build on a vast body of “only child” research, and challenge past findings that were not as kind to Little Emperors. One 2013 study published in Science looked at more than 400 individuals born before and after the one-child policy, and found that those only children were less trusting, less trustworthy, more risk-averse, less competitive, more pessimistic, and less conscientious. (Although its unclear whether these children developed as such because they were raised under an oppressive regime). Meanwhile, a recent study in Brain Imaging and Behaviour found that only-children’s brains are primed to be less agreeable and more selfish.

With a pile of contradictory only-child research on the table, it’s clear that we need more studies. Until then, parents worried that their only-children may develop selfish tendencies have few options. They can try to foster healthy friendships at home, invite the cousins over more often, and model pro-social behaviors. Or, heck, maybe try working a few Confucius quotes into play time.

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