Only children are often stereotyped as spoiled and selfish, but they might also be more creative, new research suggests.
Psychologists recently studied the correlation between birth order, visual imagination, and creative problem solving among adults born as only children and those who were raised with siblings. The study, which was published in the Creativity Research Journal, also broke down how boys and girls performed differently. The results have a lot to say about how both birth order and gender inform the way children are raised.
To complete the study, researchers gave 364 university students and staff two different tests. The first test, called a line meaning test, measured participants’ visual imagination by asking them to look at several incomplete figures made of lines and points and then to write down all the different meanings the figures might represent. The second test, which measured problem-solving ability, involved detailing as many solutions as possible to two real-world problems.
The results showed that only children scored higher on the visual imagination test (though not in problem solving) than those with siblings. This was not surprising to the researchers, who cite earlier studies with similar results, possibly attributable to the fact that parents of an only child have more resources to devote to his or her development, and that only children may grow up more independent, a trait that has also been linked to creativity.
What the researchers did not expect to find, however, was that only daughters outperformed only sons in both visual imagination and problem solving. In fact, only daughters did better than firstborn sons too.
This is where it’s important to note that the study has a twist: It took place in China, giving researchers the opportunity to consider how the country’s one-child policy may have affected the creative abilities of a generation. Because China maintains “traditional Confucian norms” that dictate that only men can carry on family lines, there tends to be a greater desire for male progeny, the researchers say. This is why families are more likely to defy the one-child law—and incur the significant penalties associated—if their first child is a daughter. When the firstborn is a son, they are less likely to have a second or third child.
So why, in a culture that so clearly advantages them, would boys perform so badly?
“It is difficult to explain why first sons, as a group, produced the lowest [creativity] scores, even when traditional Confucian culture favors them,” the researchers write. One hypothesis is that having privilege is actually a disadvantage for boys who, raised as “Little Emperors,” are made to believe they don’t need to work as hard for their superior status.
The study also suggests that perhaps those parents who are content with having only a girl are less discriminatory, and therefore raise their daughters “in the type of family environment that encourages independence, promotes feminine rights, and fosters creativity.” Perhaps they even encourage them to work harder to succeed in a prejudicial world.
In the end, the results of the study have broader implications than just the effect of birth order on creativity. It turns out that China’s one-child policy may have created “a discrepancy between two groups of parents: those demonstrating son preference and those who don’t”—and this preference might harm both boys and girls.
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