Birth Order and Personality

The results of research regarding the associations between birth order and personality are varied. In general, meta-analyses of systematic studies indicate that firstborn children are achievement-oriented, ambitious, conforming, anxious, assertive, and less em-pathetic than latterborns. Frank J. Sulloway, using a Darwinian perspective, argued that children assume different personalities or niches within the family to gain favor with parents. Firstborns do this by identifying with their parents and by conforming to parental standards. Because firstborn children are older, wiser, and more powerful, latterborns become diverse in their interests and they become more open to experience. Sulloway's treatise stemmed from his study of 3,890 career histories of scientists. Even though many firstborns were scientists (e.g., Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud), supporters of the scientists were predominantly latterborns. Sulloway interpreted this finding as indicative of the personality differences between firstborn and later-born children.

Firstborns tend to reject new theories, especially when the innovation upsets the status quo, while latterborns are more receptive to revolutionary thinking. As an example, Sulloway found that for every 12.8 firstborns who supported evolution, there were 124 latter-borns who welcomed the theory. This personality trait, openness to experience, and the concomitant defensiveness and conservatism of firstborns holds true even when size of the family, socioeconomic status, and culture are taken into account.

Some researchers have concluded that the effect of birth order on children's behavior is overrated. Many studies have not systematically controlled for intercorrelated family variables such as age spacing between siblings, size of family, and ages of siblings. Thus, certain child behaviors associated with birth order may actually be due to family size. Beyond birth order, other predictors such as gender, temperament, parenting styles, and socioeconomic status influence children's development and must be considered. For example, the literature has indicated that in families with two sisters, second-born daughters are more conforming than firstborn daughters.

Are all firstborn children power-hungry conservatives as suggested by Adler, or "goody-goodies" as proclaimed by Sulloway? Intuitively, the experiences of firstborns are affected by their ordinal position in the family. The literature has shown that parents have disparate expectations for firstborn children, although these expectations vary within and among cultures. Studies have also demonstrated that parents are more involved with their firstborn children. Moreover, evidence exists that there are behavioral, intellectual, and personality differences between firstborns and latterborns. Although it is important to acknowledge that birth-order investigators face methodological challenges, the status of being the first child in a family clearly plays some role in a child's development.



Adler, Alfred. The Individual Psychology of Alfred Adler: A Systematic Presentation in Selections from His Writings, edited and annotated by Heinz L. Ansbacher and Rowena R. Ansbacher. New York: Basic, 1956. Hoff-Ginsberg, Erika. "The Relation of Birth Order and Socioeconomic Status to Children's Language Experience and Language Development." Applied Psycholinguistics 19 (1998):603-629.

Sulloway, Frank J. Born to Rebel: Birth Order, Family Dynamics, and

Creative Lives. New York: Pantheon, 1996. Zajonc, R. B., and Gregory B. Markus. ''Birth Order and Intellectual Development.'' Psychological Review 82, no. 1 (1975):74-88.

Lisa Baumwell

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