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Why People Still “Feel Sorry” for Only Children

"Ignorance is our natural state" and the result of collective thinking.

Peter Dahlgren/
Source: Peter Dahlgren/

How many times have you heard that only children are, among other things, lonely, spoiled, selfish? If you have an only child, you can be sure that someone in your circle thinks this way.

Even if no one you know voices his or her opinion out loud, large swaths of the population believe the negative stereotypes about only children. Decades of research have refuted the myths surrounding only children, but the stigma holds fast today.

Philip Fernbach and Steven Sloman—professors at the University of Colorado’s Leeds School of Business and Brown University, respectively— explain why this happens. In their New York Times Op-Ed article titled “Why We Believe Obvious Untruths” they write, “People fail to distinguish what they know from what others know because it is often impossible to draw sharp boundaries between what knowledge resides in our heads and what resides elsewhere.”

Where did that “knowledge” about only children in your head come from? Passed down through generations in your family—grandma to your mother to you? Friends—particularly those with more children? It would then appear that what anyone of us believes about only children isn’t our own thinking, but collective “erroneous” thinking begun by psychologist G. Stanley Hall in1896 that has been perpetuated. Hall’s study of “peculiar and exceptional children” concluded that only children were bossy, had more imaginary friends, lonely, selfish…and being one was essentially a disease unto itself.

When someone says to me, “Your son is so unlike an only child,” should I be pleased or concerned that well into the 21st century people’s thinking on the subject of only children is stuck back in 1896? The person complimenting has no knowledge of the source of her prejudices or any of the findings or factors that led to G. Stanley Hall’s myths about only children.

Fernbach and Soloman, authors of the book, The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone, offer this explanation in their Times article: “Here’s the humbler truth: On their own, individuals are not well equipped to separate fact from fiction, and they never will be. Ignorance is our natural state; it is a product of the way the mind works…

“…Such collective delusions [in this case about only children] illustrate both the power and the deep flaw of human thinking. It is remarkable that large groups of people can coalesce around a common belief when few of them individually possess the requisite knowledge to support it.”

Another possible explanation comes from Sam Wang, associate professor of molecular biology and neuroscience at Princeton, and Sandra Aamodt, a former editor in chief of Nature Neuroscience. They believe that "As the source is forgotten, the message and its implications gain strength."

Does this mean the negative thinking about only children will persist—that there will always be people who feel sorry for or pass judgment on children without a brother or sister? Or, will shared knowledge of its falsehood eventually overcome the only child stereotype that still lingers?

Copyright @2017 by Susan Newman

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· See my books: The Case for the Only Child: Your Essential Guide and Parenting an Only Child: The Joys and Challenges of Raising Your One and Only


Fernbach, Philip and Sloman, Steven. "Why We Believe Obvious Untruths." The New York Times, March 5, 2017, p. 11.

Sloman, Steven and Fernbach, Philip.The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone. New York: Riverhead Books, 2017

Wang, Sam and Aamodt, Sandra. “Your Brain Lies to You.” The New York Times, June 27, 2008.

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