The Psychology of China’s Social Credit System

Extraordinary population sizes require extraordinary measures

Posted May 13, 2019

Elizabeth Haferry / Pixabay
Source: Elizabeth Haferry / Pixabay

Let’s start with a thought exercise. Imagine that you are the principal of a high school somewhere in middle America. As a result of a recent grant that was acquired by your district, your school has money to hire a number of school resource/security officers. There is also money in the budget for cameras. And there is even money in the budget for a  number of undercover cops.

Thanks to the grant, money is really no object.

So you consider your school. This school is in one of the least-populated districts in your sparsely populated agricultural state. Currently, your school has 180 students across four grades. And your graduating class is usually between 40 to 50 kids.

Your school is typical in many ways. Some issues with drugs and juuling show up every now and again. A nasty case of hateful vandalism can be expected in the bathrooms about once a year or so. And at least one all-out fist fight between students has been known to take place in the halls on occasion. Otherwise, this is a good place. It’s generally perceived as a safe and supportive school and is really known more for its vibrant academics and extra-curriculars than for its problems. Welcome to Podunk High School.

How many school resource officers would you hire? Would you have cameras installed? Would you hire an undercover cop?

Make a note of your answers, even if just in your head. And let’s continue.

It is now 10 years later and you’ve stayed faithful to Podunk across the years. The population in your part of the Midwest has boomed ever since oil was discovered in the area nine years ago. Podunk has gone from a population of 1,920 to over 16,000 in this short time. New roads, new housing, new shopping, a megaplex movie theater—the works. The Podunk of 10 years ago is hardly recognizable.

Podunk High School has undergone expansions and renovations in an effort to keep up with the growing population. The school now has about 1,600 students and there are over 350 students in the graduating class. The growth across the school district has been simply unbelievable.

The school security grant that you’d first received 10 years ago has been renewed for this year. And you’re meeting with your staff, looking to make decisions on how to spend the monies from the grant. The proportion of problematic behavior has remained pretty steady over the years. But due to the increase in numbers, the absolute amount of problematic behavior (fighting, drugs, nasty gossip, etc.) has increased.

You ask yourself the same questions that you’d asked 10 years ago. How many resource officers do you want? How many cameras (if any)? How many undercover cops?

Make a note. And now we’ll quickly quantum leap 10 years further into the future.

Podunk has been a busy place over the past years. Evergreen Energy has built a headquarters right in the middle of the town. And the community has become a national exemplar of an oil town that has a strong green-energy ethos. People from all over the nation are moving into Podunk, now with a population of more than 100,000. Bright lights, big city!

Podunk High School now is bursting at the seams with more than 8,000 students, the size of a college. A full 2,000 students are expected to graduate from Podunk High in June. Steps are underway to build two additional high schools in other parts of the district, but these projects and all of the hiring logistics needed are still at least two years away from completion. You’ve got to manage the situation as is.

Fortunately, the security grant from 20 years ago is still being funded. You laugh, remembering when you’d first thought about this grant as almost totally superfluous two decades ago. Times have changed. And you and your team are meeting about how to spend your allocation of this grant.

What is on your wishlist? How many school resource officers do you think you’ll need? Do you want cameras in the hallways and classrooms? How many? You can still add undercover cops to the mix. Do you want to do so?

You have another meeting lined up immediately following this one. It is on a related topic.

You and your staff have noticed that as the population of students has grown, more students seem to be disconnected. School spirit and morale seem to be at an all-time low. And volunteerism and community-based activities have plummeted in this new, faceless mini-metropolis. The point of this new meeting is to form a task force on community action and volunteerism. In short, you feel that there is a need for a “do good!” committee. Something you and your staff never would have thought possible at Podunk High School years ago.

Population Size and Human Evolution

Large, populated cities are relatively new when considered in the context of human evolutionary history. Before the advent of agriculture, about 10,000 years ago, all humans belonged to nomadic groups, following sources of food across the seasons. Due to practical constraints on what all is needed to move an entire clan with such regularity, nomadic groups are limited in terms of size. Research by evolutionary cognitive psychologist, Robin Dunbar, suggests, in fact, that the human mind is really only prepared to deal with about 150 people—a number that closely matches the cap on the size of nomadic groups. Further, clans included a high proportion of kin (inter-related individuals) and others with long-standing friendships and relationships. No one was a stranger to anyone within a pre-historic nomadic clan.

As with our example above pertaining to the size of Podunk High School, we can think about the need for security and policing in terms of population sizes of human communities in a broader sense, beyond the bounds of educational institutions.

In a small clan in which everyone knows everyone else, a formal police force is not really needed. In fact, historical records suggest that the implementation of formal police forces and other official security measures came on the scene with the expansion of populations in ancient civilizations in places like China and Greece (see Hunter, 1994).

The need for formal, state-sponsored policing is a direct result of the expansion of the populations of human communities. The police force in my little town of New Paltz, New York, has about 20 officers while there are about 40,000 officers in the NYPD. Further, New York City is filled with security cameras and other bells and whistles that are designed to keep people both safe and in line. This makes sense because NYC has a population that is in the millions.

China’s Social Credit System

StockSnap / Pixabay
Source: StockSnap / Pixabay

Much is being made of China’s Social Credit System, which is expected to be implemented in the next year or so (see NBC Nightly News story here). An understanding of the links among human evolution, group size, and the need to control behavior within groups sheds light on this issue.

Capitalizing on advances in such technologies as hidden cameras (more than 200 million cameras line the streets all over China) and face-recognition software, the government is working on a system that will rate each citizen in terms of his or her social credit.

One proposed model for this system has each person rated on a scale of 350-950. Ratings are affected based on information such as how much debt one owes (which might be made publicly available), one’s history of jaywalking, one’s history of volunteerism (or lack thereof), documented instances of gossiping, and more.

And there are expected to be consequences to this system. Relatively high scores will lead to discounts on various products, while low scores will lead to punitive actions, such as being prohibited from purchasing plane tickets. Sounds a little Black Mirror, right?

The Chinese government is famous for taking steps to keep citizens in line. And this new system seems like it has the potential to advance this cause.

Sure, there may be reasons to be critical of the idea of this system and there will likely be some adverse and unintended consequences.

But don’t forget the lessons of Podunk High School. Human evolutionary history is largely about the development of systems designed to control the behavior of individuals within groups (see Wilson, 2019). As population size increases, more energy, technology, and resources need to go into policing and related measures to help keep behavior in check.

Think about China. Geographically, it is about the same size as the U.S. But the U.S. has a population of about 327 million while China has a population of about 1.4 billion. The population of China is more than four times the size of the U.S. population. The people running things there, then, have to deal with the issue of reining in human behavior on a scale that is fully different from the scale in the U.S. As someone who studies the effects of evolutionary forces on the human experience, it is clear to me that the Chinese Social Credit System is, first and foremost, a system that was conceived as a direct result of the enormous population found in China.

Bottom Line

Human history is largely a history of behavioral control. Institutions have rules that shape the behaviors of individuals to help advance the broader goals of the institutions and the communities that connect with them (see Wilson, 2019).

Formal police forces emerged as a result of human population expansion. Once civilizations came on the scene, about 10,000 years ago, the need to control behavior took something of a level jump. As populations increase, issues of security and safety for the citizenry increase as well.

China’s Social Credit System might seem a bit extra to people in the US. But if you think about it in terms of the enormous population of that country, coupled with an understanding of how population size relates to increases in security-related measures within a municipality or nation, it begins to make sense. The folks who are running the show in China have 1.4 billion people to oversee. That is no small task.

Dedication: I thank my wife Kathy for helping to provide me with the amazing opportunity to teach in Chongqing, China. And for encouraging me to write this post and keeping me on task ;-)


Bingham, P. M., & Souza, J. (2009). Death from a distance and the birth of a humane universe. Lexington, KY: BookSurge Publishing.

Dunbar, R. I. M. (1992). Neocortex size as a constraint on group size in primates. Journal of Human Evolution, 22(6), 469–493.

Hunter, Virginia J. (1994). Policing Athens: Social Control in the Attic Lawsuits, 420-320 B.C. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Wilson, D. S. (2019). This View of Life: Completing the Darwinian Revolution. Pantheon: New York.