Birth Order and Personality

We examined the relation ship between Birth order and personality. It is commonly believed that birth order is an important determinant of success. Birth order appears to influence intelligence and personality, doing so through differences in parental investment, as well as through sibling interactions. These intellectual and behavioral differences affect various aspects of life achievement. Although parents, siblings, and non parents probably overemphasize the influence of birth order, evidence suggests that the experiences of individuals are related to their ordinal position in the family.

Through differences in parental investment, birth order sometimes affects the general health and well-being of offspring. Laterborns, for example, are less likely than firstborns to be vaccinated, and in developing countries laterborns tend to be shorter and to suffer higher rates of childhood mortality than do their older siblings. Introduction: The consequences of Birth Order for personality development and social behavior continue to be an intriguing and frustrating topic in family socialization.

Much of the appeal to study birth order stems from the common observation that children occupying different positions in the sibling order experience different socialization environments by virtue of their different relationships to parents as well as to other siblings and that these differences can be expected to have personality consequences.

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After all, the family is the first primary group we experience as well as the first system of stratification. Selves emerge and initially develop in the context of this intimate, stratified, socialization environment.

Children in different ordinal positions experience different socialization environments. Interaction with both parents and other siblings is affected by one's position in the sibling order.

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Firstborns tend to receive more parental attention, in terms of both support and control (Seff, 1993) They are also more likely to be given responsibility and control over younger siblings and to have higher expectations associated with their own performance. Smith (1990) found that children who reported that they spent time teaching younger siblings had higher levels of reading and language achievement.

Such socialization experiences are the basis for the expectation (and sometimes the perception) that firstborns are more dependable, responsible, cautious, conservative, and have higher achievement motivation than later born children. Birth order is defined as the science or method of understanding the dynamics of an individual's place in the family. A large amount of research has been conducted on birth order, also known as ordinal birth position. Birth order has fascinated parents, physicians, and others for over one hundred years, in part because everyone is a participant.

Everyone is born into a family and thus is affected, one way or another, by birth order position. In fact, the dynamics and persuasive influences brought on by birth order between family members are often unmistakable Birth order refers to the order in which siblings are born into a family. Although siblings may be ranked numerically according to their order of appearance, four positions typically are recognized: first, middle, youngest, and only child. Only one sibling may occupy the first, youngest or only positions, but many children can be classified as middle.

Alfred Adler (1927) was the first psychologist to theorize about the effects of birth order on personality development (Stewart and Stewart 1995) . Adler (1927) believed that parents' responses to their children were affected by the order of each child's birth into the family. This differential treatment of each child based on birth order position was believed to influence the child's developing personality. Since the inception of Adler's theories, more than 1,700 journal articles and dissertations have been written about birth order and its relationship to a wide variety of psychological topics.

Two of the most popular areas of inquiry include personality traits and intellectual achievement. (De Oca et al. , 2003) Alfred Adler, used the term "family constellation" to help explain some of the personality differences that tend to develop within families. This research into family dynamics evolved from the study of genetics. Scientists found that the influence of genetics alone did not explain the extreme differences in children from the same family. Although Adler frequently is mentioned as one of the fathers of birth order research, much of what he hypothesized has been refuted.

For example, Adler claimed that second-born children were the highest achievers because of their relatively relaxed style. After numerous subsequent studies on birth order, however, it is now generally accepted that firstborns typically achieve the most and are often more intelligent than other siblings. (Troha, 2002) Interestingly, of the first twenty-three American astronauts sent into outer space, twenty-one were firstborns and the other two were only children.

Since Adler, social scientists have spent a considerable amount of time asking the basic question of whether birth order makes any difference in how we develop as individuals. Generally, the answer is yes. A person's birth order position in the family has been linked to differences in achievement, intelligence, and behaviors, including the presence of juvenile delinquency, mental illness, and success or failure in marriage. Clearly, however, many people are most interested in the various personality traits or tendencies that accompany the different birth order positions.

(Troha, 2002)Moreover, the literature is rather consistent when it comes to identifying these characteristics, one of the few areas where there is general agreement. Birth Order Characteristics: In what order a child is born into a family is not the only determinant of behavioral characteristics or of future success or failure, but there is little doubt that birth order may influence certain personality traits. Listed below are various characteristics that correspond to the main three birth order positions: oldest/only, middle, and youngest.

It is important to remember that these are only tendencies and that environment, genetics, and parenting styles all play a significant role in how children develop as individuals. (Troha, 2002) Characteristics of Firstborn and Only Children: Firstborn and only children typically get a lot of attention from their parents. Much of what they do is recorded in baby books and little achievements are celebrated as major events, so it is no wonder that these children often develop an appreciation for success and seek ways to acquire new skills.

These children are seldom allowed to be just kids. Parents tend to be demanding of firstborn and only children, which leads to high expectations and undue pressure. Typical characteristics of firstborn and only children include Self-confidence, Perfectionism, Good organizational skills, High achievement goals, Scholarliness, Conservatism, A tendency to make lists and Good communication skills with adults. Characteristics of Middle Children: Research indicates that middle children seem to be more relaxed and impartial than their older and younger siblings.

They sometimes feel "squeezed" and accordingly develop characteristics that help them negotiate—and sometimes manipulate—their place in the family environment. (Troha, 2002)Because of their ability to play diplomat and peacemaker, they appear to have balanced personalities. Middle children tend to be Flexible, Diplomatic, Independent, Balanced, Resourceful, Generous and The opposite of their oldest sibling Characteristics of Youngest Children: As the "babies" of their families, youngest children often do not get enough credit for their accomplishments.

Consequently, they may rebel or simply stop trying to please authority figures. Youngest children typically acquire wonderful social skills because of their interactions with older siblings. They are generally charming, playful, and sometimes a little absent-minded. Research seems to indicate that youngest children tend to be attracted to vocations that are people-oriented, such as sales and teaching. (Troha, 2002)Youngest children are inclined to be Risk takers, Outgoing, Creative, Funny and charming, Rebellious, Persistent and Lacking in self-discipline

The Importance of Spacing: While researchers do not always agree on how spacing (the years between each birth) between siblings influences personality and behavior, there is a general belief that children have an easier adjustment if siblings are not extremely close in age. Sibling rivalry does have a tendency to decrease as the age spread increases, which may result in better-adjusted children. Research indicates that this rivalry is at a peak when there is two year's difference between children.

Other variables such as parenting styles, gender, and physical/mental characteristics of the child seem to have more influence on behavioral outcomes than spacing. (Troha, 2002) Discussion: Birth order theories enjoy popular appeal because they provide an intuitive and commonsense explanation for the personality differences between siblings of different birth ranks. Additionally, the publication of popular resources, such as Kevin Leman's Birth Order Book (1985) , that attribute myriad individual differences to birth order can create the impression that birth order plays a very significant role in personality development.

From 1976 to the end of the twentieth century researchers conducted more than 141 studies of the relationship between birth order and personality. The methodologically sound studies among this number generally have revealed few reliable differences in personality variables due to birth order Frank Sulloway's book Born to Rebel (1996) generated renewed interest in birth order and personality research by contending that firstborn children are more responsible, competitive, and conventional, while laterborns are more playful, cooperative, and rebellious.

Although Sulloway's rationale of niche-picking within the family is compelling, the hypothesized relationships have received only marginal support using the big-five model of personality, which comprises the traits of neuroticism, extraversion, openness, agreeableness, and conscientiousness. Within-family studies have yielded slightly more support for Sulloway's theory (Paulhus, Trapnell, and Chen 1999) . Overall, studies of the relationship between birth order and personality have yielded very small effect sizes at best.

Consequently, one can question whether birth order and personality effects either are noticeable in everyday life or possess significance for clinical practice. It is likely that birth order and personality effects are more apparent than they are real. Adlerian psychology and contributions from developmental psychology and role theory suggest that personality variables may relate more meaningfully to the roles that siblings construct or are ascribed rather than to actual birth order (Hoffman 1991) .

That is, although a child may be the youngest, the gender mix of the siblings, the differences in ages, and other unique variables may combine to create a firstborn role for the youngest child. (De Oca et al. , 2003) Studies that have measured the perceived or psychological birth order of young adults revealed that 45 percent of men and 52 percent of women have a distinctive sibling role in their families and that psychological and actual birth order is in agreement for 19 percent of people.

Further, sibling roles may mediate the effects of actual birth order and family atmosphere on personality traits (Stewart, Stewart, and Campbell 2001). Consequently, research using sibling or family roles may be more revealing than studies relying upon actual birth order, especially those that simply split participant samples into firstborn versus later born; this may mask the important effects of the non shared family environment. In addition to personality, birth order research has also largely focused on its relation to intelligence and scholastic achievement.

The literature in this area reveals inconsistent results that have stemmed largely from confounding variables present in many birth order studies, including socioeconomic status, race and ethnicity, and age of participants. (De Oca et al. , 2003)Additionally, much of the research in this area indicates that birth order effects are inextricably related to family size, with stronger effects appearing in larger families. Even studies of the effects of family size have been equivocal.

Joseph Rodgers and colleagues (2000) analyzed the relationships of birth order and family size to the intelligence quotient (IQ) within families using data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth. Their results suggest that neither birth order nor family size directly affects IQ; rather, it is the parents' IQ that is more likely to influence both family size and children's IQ levels. Several studies found achievement motivation, rather than intelligence, to be associated with ordinal position in the family.

Later research on birth order and achievement began to focus on aspiration levels and achievement attributions more than simply on academic achievement. Firstborns attribute success or failure to internal causes and may even underestimate how their situations might have affected success, compared to laterborns. (De Oca et al. , 2003) Toni Falbo (1981) observed a significant relationship between birth order and competitiveness. First and middle children scored significantly higher than lastborns on competitiveness. Only children did not differ significantly from any of the other groups on this variable.

William Snell, Linda Hargrove, and Toni Falbo (1981) explored the relationship between birth order and achievement motivation and found a significant correlation between birth order and one specific facet of achievement motivation, competitiveness. (De Oca et al. , 2003)It may be that the presence of competitiveness mediates the relationship between birth order and achievement. One of the most remarkable discoveries in the field of psychology during the last several decades has been the finding that siblings who grow up together are almost as different as people plucked at random from the general population.

Behavioral geneticists have shown that only about 5 percent of the variance in personality from one individual to another is associated with the shared family environment–that is, growing up in the same home. About 40 percent of the variance in personality appears to be genetic in origin, and another 20 percent is associated with errors in measurement. The remaining 35 percent of the variance is attributable to the non shared environment (unique experiences that are not shared by siblings). (Sulloway, 2004) One important conclusion from this behavioral genetic research is that, for the most part, the family is not a shared environment.

One possible source of such non shared experiences is birth order, since children of different birth orders vary in age, size, and family roles. In addition, siblings compete with one another for parental investment (including love, attention, and scarce resources), and parents sometimes favor one child over another even when they try not to do so. Darwinian Theory predicts such competition among siblings, which has been widely documented among animals, fish, insects, and even plants. (Sulloway, 2004) The principles of genetics help us in understanding this particular form of Darwinian competition.

On average, siblings share only half of their genes, so they are twice as related to themselves as they are to another sibling. Based on the theory of kin selection, siblings are expected to act selfishly toward one another unless the benefits of sharing scarce resources are greater than twice the costs. Siblings therefore tend to develop context-sensitive strategies for optimizing parental investment– sometimes at the expense of other siblings–and these strategies are influenced by differences in age, size, power, and status within the family.

Birth order is an excellent proxy for these differences. Prior to about 1800, fewer than half of all human offspring ever reached adulthood, so even slight differences in parental investment, or in the competitive advantages developed by siblings, were sufficient to tip the balance in determining who survived and who did not. By cultivating unique and useful family niches, siblings increase their value within the family system. Firstborns have customarily adopted the role of a surrogate parent, which causes them to be more parent-identified and conservative than younger siblings.

(Sulloway, 2004) Because laterborns cannot baby-sit themselves, they generally seek to develop alternative and unoccupied niches within the family system, a process that seems to involve a predilection for experimentation and openness to experience. Birth-order research, which encompasses more than two thousand studies, has established a consistent pattern of birth-order differences in personality. These differences can be usefully summarized by the Five Factor Model of personality, which encompasses the dimensions of conscientiousness, openness to experience, agreeableness, extraversion, and neuroticism.

As reflected by their frequent role as surrogate parents, firstborns tend to be more conscientious than laterborns. By comparison, laterborns tend to be more open to experience than firstborns, especially in those facets of this personality dimension that involve the questioning of family values or the authority of their elders. Laterborns are also somewhat more agreeable than firstborns, since they generally adopt low-power strategies, including cooperation and acquiescence, that accord with their lesser age, power, and physical size.

In addition, laterborns are more extraverted than firstborns in the specific sense of being fun-loving, excitement seeking, and sociable. (Sulloway, 2004)Finally, firstborns and laterborns both manifest aspects of neuroticism, but in different ways. Firstborns are more neurotic in the sense of being anxious about loss of power and status, whereas laterborns are more neurotic in the sense of being self-conscious–an attribute that probably stems from their tendency to compare themselves with older and more accomplished sibling models.

Compared with birth-order differences in personality that are measured within the family, those documented in extra familial contexts tend to be less pronounced. Still, there is considerable evidence that birth-order differences in personality and behavior manifest them in no familial contexts–especially when these behavioral contexts resemble those previously encountered within the family. To cite an example documented by Catherine Salmon (1998) , firstborns and laterborns respond differently to political speeches that use the terms brother and sister as opposed to friend.

Extensive research indicates that firstborns tend to have higher IQS than laterborns, although this difference is small (IQ is reduced about one point with each successive birth rank in the family). Explanations for these findings have generally focused on the consequences of increasing family size, since children from large families have lower IQs than children from small families. According to Robert Zajonc's confluence model, the addition of younger siblings impoverishes the family's intellectual environment because children are less intellectually proficient than adults.

(Sulloway, 2004)This theory predicts that firstborns will tend to have higher IQs than laterborns because firstborns spend more time alone with their parents, and more time in smaller sibling groups. Firstborns also seem to initiate more interactions, both positive and negative, with their younger siblings than vice versa. They are more likely to engage their younger siblings in conversation, but they are also more likely to be verbally disapproving. As compared to older peers, firstborn children tend to instruct younger siblings by providing appropriate feedback and guidance.

The opportunity to be a "teacher" may help explain why firstborn children, on average, have higher IQs than only or youngest children. (Baumwell, 2002) Firstborn children are temporarily only children and thus are exposed to one-to-one speech with their parents. When a new child is born, firstborns and their siblings receive less child-directed speech and are privy to multiparty speech. Specifically, mothers appear to provide more linguistic support and more complex grammatical statements to their firstborns even when their firstborns and latter born are observed at the same age.

Concordantly, firstborn toddlers have larger vocabularies, reach language milestones earlier, and demonstrate more sophisticated grammar than their siblings. (Baumwell, 2002) The early language competence of firstborns may partially explain the proclivity of firstborns to achieve in school. In contrast, later-born children's skill in conversational speech and their expertise in understanding the mental states of others potentially contribute to their renowned social acumen. While much of the research on birth order is considered useful, many psychologists are quick to point out that it lacks strong scientific merit.

One social psychologist has even likened birth order theory to astrology because of its rather liberal and far-reaching implementation. Another mentions that it is often a way for people to deny responsibility for their behavior. Judith Blake, author of Family Size and Achievement (1989) , believes the size of the family into which a child is born is more important than the order of births in the family. She argues that the fewer the siblings there are, the more attention each child gets from the parents.

And the more attention the child receives, the greater the chances of achievement in school verbal and behavioral skills are used more often through interaction with parents. Probably the biggest setback to birth order research came from the writings of two Swiss psychologists, Cecile Ernst and Jules Angst. In a noteworthy 1983 critique of over a thousand studies on birth order, Ernst and Angst openly criticized the method by which many of these studies were conducted. Background variables, they argued, were inadequately controlled within the research, thereby rendering much of the significance of birth order useless.

They further argued that the differences between families and number of siblings might be the cause for particular trends. (Troha, 2002) In spite of these criticisms, research into birth order and its effects on personality, behavior, achievement, and intellect continue. In fact, a comprehensive research project on birth order by Frank Sulloway, called Born to Rebel (1996), seems to refute much of what Ernst and Angst questioned in regard to the significance of birth order on personality and development.

Sulloway does this through the use of a sophisticated scientific method called meta-analysis, in which pooled studies are used to increase the statistical significance. In other words, the more data that are examined, the less likely there is for error to occur. It is important to note that as Sulloway reviewed the criticism of Ernst and Angst, he was able to find 196 birth order studies that did meet the standards for what these two researchers called "properly controlled research.

" Sulloway subsequently examined the five main personality traits and how these relate to human development: openness to experience, conscientiousness, agreeableness, neurosis (emotional instability), and extroversion. (Troha, 2002) Out of 196 studies, 72 of them substantiated the following components: • Openness to experience: Firstborns are more conforming, traditional, and closely identified with parents. • Conscientiousness: Firstborns are more responsible, achievement-oriented, and organized. • Agreeableness: Latterborns are more easygoing, cooperative, and popular.

• Neurosis (emotional instability): Firstborns are more jealous, anxious, neurotic, and fearful. • Extroversion: Firstborns are more outgoing, assertive, and likely to exhibit leadership qualities. In addition to contradicting much of the criticism aimed at birth order research, Sulloway's research details his efforts to gather data on thousands of people who were involved in historic controversies. He wanted to know what set apart the rebels from the reactionaries throughout history. (Troha, 2002)His conclusion is one that suggests family structure, not necessarily church, state, or economy, as the impetus to historical change.

He makes a case that firstborns, whatever their age, sex, class, or nationality, specialize in defending the status quo while latter born specialize in toppling it. Conclusion: Whether or not birth order is accepted as a legitimate means of understanding people, it is difficult to ignore many of the general characteristics and tendencies that seem to attach themselves to the three common ordinal positions. However, it is important to remember that, in the end, it really is up to the individual to shape his or her own tendencies. Each child is unique.

Likewise, each family situation is unique. A variety of factors will impact birth order dynamics, including spacing, gender, physical differences, disabilities, birth order position of parents, divorce, and sibling death. Most social scientists will, at the minimum, agree that birth order is simply one of numerous ways to probe the enigma known as the human personality. Owing to its influence on inheritance practices as well as social and political life, birth order appears to have exerted greater impact on people's lives in past centuries than it does today.

Still, birth order continues to shape personality and behavior by influencing parental investment, as well as by affecting sibling strategies for increasing parental investment. In large part through behavioral genetic studies, psychologists have learned that the family is not primarily a shared environment. Most environmental influences on personality appear to owe themselves to non shared experiences, including some that are attributable to birth order. In addition to shaping personality and behavior, birth order also exerts an influence on familial sentiments.

Individual differences in family sentiments mediate loyalties to the family, degree of contact with parents and other close relatives, and attitudes toward parental authority. In past centuries, these birth-order differences have often played themselves out during radical revolutions, providing a link between the formative experiences of childhood and the course of world history. Even today birth order continues to shape differences in personality and behavior that, in meaningful ways, affect overall life experience. References DE OCA, GLORIA M. MONTES, and ALAN E. STEWART "Birth Order. " International Encyclopedia of Marriage and Family.

Ed. James J. Ponzetti, Jr. Vol. 1. 2nd ed. New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 2003. 4 pp. 4 vols. Ernst, Cecile, and Jules Angst. Birth Order: Its Influence on Personality. New York: Springer-Verlag, 1983. SULLOWAY, FRANK J. "Birth Order. " Encyclopedia of Children and Childhood in History and Society. Ed. Paula S. Fass. Vol. 1. New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 2004. 4 pp. 3 vols. Sulloway, Frank. J. Born to Rebel: Birth Order Family Dynamics and Creative Lives. New York: Pantheon, 1996. Troha, James A. "Birth Order and Spacing. " Child Development. Ed. Neil J. Salkind. New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 2002. 3 pp.

Updated: Jul 07, 2022
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Birth Order and Personality essay
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