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China’s One Jerk Policy

A team of researchers report in Science that China’s one-child policy has created a generation of jerks. The study focused on the psychological characteristics of the generation born after the controversial policy was implemented in 1979. The New York Times brings us the story:

The researchers asked two groups of people—born just before and just after the policy was put into place—to play a set of games using real money.

In a game involving trust, test subjects were paired with anonymous partners. Player One was given 100 renminbi (about $16) and invited to pass it along to Player Two. The money would then be tripled, and Player Two could pass some of it back.

Players born after the one-child policy was instituted were less likely to pass money along than the older participants.

The study’s authors sum up their findings:

We document that China’s One-Child Policy, one of the most radical approaches to limiting population growth, has produced significantly less trusting, less trustworthy, more risk-averse, less competitive, more pessimistic, and less conscientious individuals.

These findings ought to be troubling for China’s leaders. It’s been pointed out many times before that the ranks of only children are large and growing, and that they are outnumbered by, and thus hard pressed to care for, parents and grandparents. Now we find that they are also less inclined to follow the Confucian tradition’s dictates of respect and responsibility for one’s elders. Indeed, this is why the leadership has already enacted laws forcing selfish children to visit their parents regularly or face legal consequences.

Who will China’s aging masses rely on when their unreliable (and, granted, unfairly overburdened) children desert them?

Not the state—at least not anymore. Mao promised China’s masses an “iron rice bowl”—guaranteed lifelong employment and, frequently, some kind of pension for the twilight years. But today’s liberalized China provides very little in the way of a state-sponsored social safety net, and it has nothing like the U.S. Social Security program. China’s “little emperors” will need to grow up fast.

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