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Only children are no more selfish than those with siblings

Do you think that an only child behaves differently to a kid with siblings? If you do, you’re hardly alone.

07 October 2021

By Emma Young

Stereotypes about only children being spoiled, self-centred "little emperors" abound. In 2019, though, research in Germany concluded that while the idea that only children are more narcissistic is widespread, it's wrong. Now a team in China has failed to find any evidence for another of the clichés: that only children are more selfish.

In a paper in Social Psychology and Personality Science, Xuegang Zheng at Shaanxi Normal University and colleagues first confirm that this particular stereotype indeed exists — among adults who grew up with siblings, at least. (In the paper, the team uses the term "only children" and "non-only children" to refer to adults without or with siblings.) This group consistently tended to rate "typical" only children as being less prosocial (or more selfish) than non-only children; however, the only children in this study rated both groups the same. The team used various scales to gather these ratings, including a version of the dictator game, in which the participants were asked to judge how much of a given amount of money a "typical" only child or non-only child would be willing to share with them. 

In a second study of 391 adults (169 of whom were only children), the researchers used the same altruism scales (including the dictator game), but this time asked the participants to rate themselves. They found no differences between the two groups; only children did not emerge as being any more selfish than children with siblings.

This particular stereotype is thought to stem, at least in part, from the idea that only children grow up as the sole focus of their parents' attention. If this is the case, there may be upsides. Some earlier work has found, for example, that only children tend to report better, warmer relationships with their parents. Perhaps, the researchers reasoned, only children might be more altruistic (or less selfish) towards the people closest to them. So they investigated this idea in a third study.

A group of 99 Chinese students (about half were only children) first identified people at varying social distances from them — from parents, through friends and acquaintances, to strangers. Across a series of trials, each participant was offered a small sum of money and asked whether they wanted to keep it for themselves or share it with a given target person on their social distance scale. (The social distance between the participant and this target person varied across the trials, and the researchers did actually pay out a small proportion of the offered money.)

If the only children were actually more selfless than non-only children with the people closest to them — or perhaps more selfish than non-only children with people they knew less well — this should have been evident in the data. But it wasn't. Again, there were no differences in the results for the two groups. Though the finding of equal results for only children and non-only children in the second study came only from self-report data, these findings on actual behaviour shore up  the conclusion that the stereotype is wrong.

It's worth noting that the sample sizes in these studies were small. And the results might not be generalisable beyond China (where of course the one-child policy has had a big impact), or even across China (as the samples were not nationally representative). Also, these studies were all on adults who had grown up with or without siblings, rather than only children. Still, the results do add to the growing evidence against common stereotypes about only children — or "only adults", at least.

Further reading

– They Are Not Little Emperors: Only Children Are Just as Altruistic as Non-Only Children

About the author

Emma Young (@EmmaELYoung) is a staff writer at BPS Research Digest