Why Are Only-Child Women (And Men) So Self-Centered?


Hi Evan,
Before I got married 10 years ago (now recently divorced) I had and just recently have had ‘coffee dates’ of at least a dozen to two dozen (no exaggeration) with only-child women. The same personality trait in all of them can be found when I meet them: They rarely ever ask any questions, show little interest or just passing curiosity about me, even just to fake it. It’s astounding.
Additionally, if I don’t keep up the conversation by being interested with questions about them it becomes dead silence. They don’t ever engage or banter. Not a sentence comes out that requires a question mark. I almost never see this trait with anyone else. Just only-child women.

I actually have seen it in non-dating situations (groups, friends, etc.) of lack of interest or inquisitiveness about almost anything in social situations. Before I got married I had a few hundred coffee dates over many years. My experience is not weak. I can recount all of them because they are glaring in my mind and consistent. Too many for it to be a coincidence.

Is there any anecdotal evidence to suggest a strong correlation of only child and almost a self-centeredness or just plain lack of social interest in other people? Any thought or experience you had with this?

Thanks, Steven

Dear Steven,

I usually don’t get to talk like this, so I’m going to relish the moment:

You’re wrong.

We stereotype. We generalize. We have a sliver of evidence, and we blow it up to become the entire story. And, as a result, we fail to judge people on an individual basis.

I can see why you feel the way you feel, but, if anything, you’re just referring to a well-worn stereotype and finding evidence to support what you already believe.

Alas, my friend, science has spoken, and only children are no less adjusted or socialized than any other children. The only thing that’s different is that their test scores are a little bit higher, probably because they get all of the attention of both parents.

This New York Times article was particularly illuminating on this topic.

So if you’re wrong, then why am I running your letter? Well, because it illustrates a perfect example of what people tend to do when evaluating romantic partners.

We stereotype. We generalize. We have a sliver of evidence, and we blow it up to become the entire story. And, as a result, we fail to judge people on an individual basis.

What kind of stereotypes are we talking about? Well, probably ones not that different than “only children are self-centered”. Destructive things like:

Men who have never been married by age 40 are damaged.
Women who are lawyers are difficult as girlfriends.
Psychologists are all crazy.
If he’s divorced, it means he doesn’t value commitment.

Might you be cautious of lifelong bachelors, separated people, and intense lawyers and shrinks? Sure. But you might be similarly cautious of anyone who is:

Successful (too ambitious, workaholic, puts his drive over his wife)
Attractive (too vain, too shallow, too narcissistic)
Intelligent (too arrogant, opinionated, difficult, moody)

In other words, EVERYONE has issues — and we can’t spend our lives avoiding all only children, or all divorced men, or all psychologists.

We need to take each person at face value and judge on merit, rather than prejudice and stereotype.

Put another way, what would someone say about you, if they were being highly critical and discriminating?

If my wife bought into that — and tried to protect herself from the admittedly slutty, 35-year-old “dating expert” who’d passed up over 300 women and never had a relationship for longer than 8 months — well, then, it would have been both of our losses.

I’ve said it recently, and I’ll say it again: don’t judge a book by it’s cover. Read the whole thing, and if you don’t like it, then don’t read the sequel. Anything less than that, and you’re discriminating without knowing the full picture.

Put another way, what would someone say about you, if they were being highly critical and discriminating? Takes Prozac? Makes no money? Single cat lady? Too independent?

How unfair if someone didn’t see past that label to the true you inside…

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  1. 21
    Evan Marc Katz

    Sayanta – the difference is that there is no basis for theory that only children are self-involved. And while I’m not a scientist, I do believe that people who are 10’s in looks have been given so much attention outside their families (far more than only children) that they really are more narcissistic. Hot people are like celebrities – actors, athletes, politicians – who believe that the rules no longer apply to them. To me, this generalization has a greater basis in truth than the only children one, which was debunked in that New York Times article.

    Or are you suggesting that if the only children generalization is false that therefore no other generalizations about people are true?

  2. 22

    @Starthrower #12

    I feel for you ladies and the seemingly mixed message about asking questions. Too many and it’s the inquisition, too few and you’re not showing interest.

    I think, maybe, that analyzing the source of one’s questions may be a help. If a woman (or a man) is engaged in the conversation, they’ll ask questions out of plain interest and curiosity. I would venture this type of questioning feels natural to the other person, and doesn’t ring their alarm bells.

    It’s when questions are asked which indicate an agenda…say when you’re asked a series of questions which aren’t directly related to the conversation at hand, that it puts people off.

    As for your gregariousness…well, if your talking about stuff you’re interested in, at least your not grilling your date! 🙂

    Hell, even outside the dating game, this type of questioning is disruptive to any conversation, because it forces a stiffness, an unnaturalness into the conversation.

    So, don’t take it as “all you gals ask too darn many questions”, but rather, sometimes, some people get distracted by their own inner dialogue and forget to focus on being in the moment.

  3. 23


    Well…it’s possible that people ‘believe’ the generalizations that suit their worldview. Someone with no bad experiences with only children would be unlikely to believe a stereotype about them. Someone who’s been slammed by a lot of hot girls (or guys) would probably be likely to believe a negative generalization to support them. And if you really want to believe something, I think you’ll always find evidence to support it, no matter what.

    But- y’know. To each his own. It doesn’t really matter to me- I was just kinda throwing that out there.

  4. 24

    Maybe being an only child magnifies self-centeredness in those prone to it, such as the good-looking types mentioned in another post. (Studies link certain negative personality traits and behaviors to physical attractiveness.) Imagine the doting and showing off parents do with an attractive only child.

    Anyway, it’s possible that Steven’s experience is true. For example, because he’s appealing enough to get plenty of dates, perhaps they’re with good-looking women. Perhaps the lookers who aren’t so self-centered are less likely to be single. Perhaps only children who aren’t particularly attractive aren’t as interested in dating as their peers with siblings (or couple up faster), thus leaving a self-centered subset for men like Steven to meet.

    There’s always room for more research.

  5. 25

    When I took a critical thinking class not too long ago, the text stated that we all rely on generalizations to some degree, because of time contraints, size of the situation, etc, and are merely forced to use them to make a snap decision. However, in a one-on-one situation, that would not be an appropriate response. There you have the time and ability to take that person on their own merits, and take other things into consideration, as in, “is that person nervous?”; “have they had a bad day or are overly tired?”. On the road to love, we have to be able to see things from another point of view or at least ask questions about their perspective.

  6. 26

    @25: I work with abused dogs and one thing that you see all the time is a dog that always has an aggressive or fearful reaction toward people of the same physical type–petite, older women with frizzy hair (in one case), men with loud voices, hyper children–or sometimes toward certain objects (sticks, pipes, etc.). (I know. Awful.) You see it so often that you just come to understand that the dog is making “generalizations” about the human s/he comes in contact with. If it looks like an abusive human, it probably is, in their world. Seems like a survival thing.

    It always makes me wonder if our biases derive in part from a similar kind of survival mechanism rather than moral failing.

  7. 27

    Such biases surely are stronger with strangers than with others. Hence, the importance of first impressions.

  8. 28
    Christie Hartman

    I loved this post. I am tired of the stereotype of the self-absorbed only child. As Evan said, there is no research to support this idea. Even birth order research has shown that birth order effects are there, but they are quite small. And doesn’t anyone find it odd that this dude chose so many only child women when, statistically, they aren’t very common?

  9. 29
    Karl R

    Christie Herman asked: (#28)
    “doesn’t anyone find it odd that this dude chose so many only child women when, statistically, they aren’t very common?”

    Not when you look at the numbers. Steven said he had “a few hundred coffee dates over many years.” Of those “at least a dozen or two dozen” were “with only-child women.”

    If he had 200 first dates, and 20 of those were with only children, that would be about 10%. That’s probably reasonably close to the US average.

  10. 30
    Christine in UK

    Where you are going wrong is going for coffee dates. Why coffee?! In the UK, we tend to meet up at the pub for a drink and see how we get on. With a glass of wine or cider, its much friendlier. That’s how my relationship started with my man.
    I also agree stereotyping means you could be missing out on someone lovely.

  11. 31

    As time is making headway, online dating is becoming popular in India. Few years back, people don’t like to talk about the same candidly as it was supposed to be the part of the Western culture and was not accepted by the Indian society. But with the introduction of western culture in India, online dating do found acceptance in Indian society gradually.

  12. 32

    I am an only child, and I was in New York recently and read the article in the New York times.   I am none of things but dated guys who have sibilings who are all of those things.   I agree with Evan being an only child does not tie you to a set of personality traits.   What I find that I am able to do because of my experience as an only child is treat my partner as a priority in my life, be totally focussed with my time and attention when I am with him and I am able to devote myself to someone at the same time as being independent and enjoy my own company to give my partner the space he needs.

  13. 33

    I found this to be very interesting. I am an only child(and a woman no less), and honestly I can see where Steven got this idea. I am self-centered, or at least according to his idea of self-centered. Whenever I’m seeing a new person for the first time, its usually them that are asking the questions and sparking conversation.
    Growing up, it was just my mom and I; on top of this we moved a lot. Sometimes several times within a school year. Due to this I had very few friends, and even fewer opportunities to practice socializing. Because of all this, I have a hard time coming up with things to say to someone, and even when I do think of something I’m scared to say/ask it in case it might be socially unacceptable. I’m sure I’m the only person, only-child or otherwise to feel this way. Which could appear as me being “selfish”, when in fact all I’m doing is trying to think of something to please the other person.
    I usually wait for the other person to start the conversation, as it helps me figure out whats okay to say and whats not. And if I can’t think of anything, I wait for them to ask a question, answer and then say “Right back at ya,” or something along those lines.

  14. 34

    Generalization or not, I too have had similar experiences to Steven — Not dozens as in his case and not necessarily always in a dating context.    Bias exists everywhere (especially these days   in psychological and pharmaceutical research)   and perception clouds knowledge.   The women Steven is attracting:   “only-children” who fit his description, while it may be random coincidence, as described, do in fact fit a valid and extant pattern, FOR HIM.    

    My suggestion to him would be to read the following articles and sites which may have more correct and complete answers to his question:

  15. 35

    THANK YOU so much for this post! People are not dolls in boxes with labels! I met people who had siblings with loving parents who were abusive and extremely self-centered whilst having an only child best friend who is very social, open and very generous and caring. How can one ask a question with an already directed answer, as if convinced that only children are not normal. Maybe the only children women this guy dated FOUND HIM TOTALLY SELF-CENTERED and just wanted that terrible date to end???

  16. 36

    I actually agree with Steven. Everyone on here is attacking him..defensive much? Only children sometimes ARE different than children who have had siblings growing up. There is a much different dynamic. Instead of being so politically correct all the time why don’t you tell it like it is? They ARE different and need to be handled differently. Oh Steven…I at least feel you on this one…

  17. 37

    People are not attacking Stephen. They’re rightly being critical of a stereotype that has no basis in fact. Are some only children self-centered? Yes. Are some people with siblings self-centered? Yes.

  18. 38

    This is a good topic. What Stephen doesn’t realize is that many women don’t ask questions about the guy on dates. I have heard from my single female friends that many guys only talk about themselves. So this isn’t gender based. Whether or not these people are only children should have no bearing. Stephen’s filters are just bad.
    Before I meet any woman, I talk to her a couple of times on the phone. If she doesn’t ask me personal questions on the phone, then she wont in person. If she does ask about you on the phone, then she will do more of it in person. Simple as that.
    While I feel for you Stephen, this problem seems to be partly your own doing. I bet all of these women you complain about showed these red flags on the   phone and you just ignored it. Take my advice. If the phone calls aren’t easy breezy and to your liking then don’t go on the date. Every good first date I ever had always began with a great phone conversation with both of us asking things about each other.

  19. 39

    No he’s right, about 90% of only children have the same self centered attitude.   Do all only children have this trait, no, but in my experience they do.   I understand that no two people are alike, but his observation of traits of only children are completely valid.

  20. 40

    I’m an only child, female – 34yrs. I ask TONS of questions, LOVE banter, am very inquisitive about people in general, especially what makes them unique. I think it’s definitely a stereotype. One that can be said for any individual. Let’s take youngest child for instance. I can go on and on about how in my experience they always act out, command attention, do stupid and dangerous things, and don’t take life seriously because they were babied by everyone, parents and siblings and because they’re taken less seriously in their family where everyone is older. But I won’t judge, it’s simply and individual thing. I think believing in that stereotype is like believing in Astrology, that all Geminis are two faced and indecisive and flighty, or that all Leos are conceited and attention grabbing. Everyone is an individual and should be treated as such.

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