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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. ...

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.


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