Early-life exposure to hardship increased risk tolerance and entrepreneurship in adulthood with gender differences

Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

49 Pages Posted: 5 Jun 2016 Last revised: 6 Apr 2022

See all articles by Junjian Yi

Junjian Yi

Peking University

Junhong Chu

HKU Business School

Ivan P. L. Png

National University of Singapore (NUS)

Date Written: January 31, 2022


Many entrepreneurs credit their success to early hardship. Here, we exploit geographical differences in the intensity of China's Great Famine to investigate the effect of hardship during formative years on individual personality and engagement in business entrepreneurship. To exclude factors that might confound the relation between famine intensity and entrepreneurship, we model famine intensity by random weather shocks.

We find robust evidence that individuals who experienced more hardship were subsequently more likely to become entrepreneurs (defined broadly as self-employed or business owners). Importantly, the increase in entrepreneurship was at least partly due to conditioning rather than selection.

Regarding the behavioral mechanism, hardship was associated with greater risk tolerance among men and women, but increased business ownership only among men. The gender differences were possibly due to the intricate relationship between a Chinese social norm—men focus more on market work while women focus more on domestic work—and inter-spousal risk pooling associated with occupational choices.

Scientifically, these findings contribute to a long-standing debate on whether entrepreneurship is due to nature or nurture, particularly, how the “School of Hard Knocks” conditions people to be entrepreneurial. The findings also highlight the importance of gender differences in shaping the effect of early-life experience on life-cycle outcomes.

Keywords: Entrepreneurship; Hardship; Gender difference; Conditioning; Risk attitudes; China’s Great Famine

JEL Classification: L26, O15, O17

Suggested Citation

Yi, Junjian and Chu, Junhong and Png, Ivan P. L., Early-life exposure to hardship increased risk tolerance and entrepreneurship in adulthood with gender differences (January 31, 2022). Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2789174 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2789174

Junjian Yi

Peking University ( email )

National School of Development
Peking University
Beijing, Beijing 100871

HOME PAGE: http://https://en.nsd.pku.edu.cn/faculty/fulltime/y/520194.htm

Junhong Chu

HKU Business School ( email )

K.K. Leung Building
Hong Kong
Hong Kong
852-39103087 (Phone)

HOME PAGE: http://www.chujunhong.com

Ivan P. L. Png (Contact Author)

National University of Singapore (NUS) ( email )

Singapore, 117543
+65 6516-6807 (Phone)

HOME PAGE: http://sites.google.com/site/iplpng/

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