Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Birth Order

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Interesting article by: Justine van der Leun

Oldest children are domineering achievers, middles are agreeable doormats, babies are coddled whiners and only children are spoiled brats. These stereotypes of birth order have circulated since the early 20th century, when a contemporary of Sigmund Freud, M.D., Alfred Adler, M.D., theorized that our personalities are profoundly influenced by our places in the family tree. Since then, the study of birth order has remained controversial, with a mass of scientists insisting that the studies of families, with their myriad of differences, are too flawed to prove anything. An opposing camp of scientists, however, are armed with an increasingly substantial arsenal of studies that seem to point to birth order's influence on our intelligence, our character and our life experience. So if we are affected, how -- and how much?

Limits on the Impact Birth Order Has
Multiple scientific studies suggest that birth order -- and the resulting family dynamic -- can have a small but important effect on intelligence, personality, education and career. Of course, other factors hold a far greater influence. A seminal 1987 study that questioned how siblings, who share half their DNA with one another, could be so different found that 40 percent of personality variance is genetic, 35 percent springs from each sibling's necessarily divergent life experience and five percent is due to birth order. Moreover, studies that support the birth order effect focus on hard numbers and generalities, so they simply can't account for each individual, nor do they solidify our fate.

Leading Expert's Guide to Birth Order
We spoke with Frank J. Sulloway, Ph.D., a visiting scholar at the Institute of Personality and Social Research at the University of California-Berkeley and the author of "Born to Rebel: Birth Order, Family Dynamics and Creative Lives," to find out how each stereotype holds up to scientific research.

Only Children -- Always Spoiled?
Although they've gotten a bad rap, social psychologists have done hundreds of studies which indicate that only children are not markedly different from their peers who have siblings. So then where was this stereotype born? Adler, the initial investigator of the birth-order effect, believed these sibling-less kids were "deficient" and maladjusted; enduring stereotypes dictate that these are society's spoiled brats. New research indicates that only children are not markedly different from their peers who have siblings. They tend, in keeping with scientists' expectations, to be similar to firstborns in terms of IQ and motivation. Like firstborns, they are conscientious, parent-oriented high achievers.

Here's Why: Only children luck out by getting all the parental resources -- forever. A 20-year-study showed that they shine on intelligence tests, most likely because they are intensely nurtured and have a financial and educational advantage over kids that must share parental time and money. Also, infants, who initially give nothing intellectually and take everything they can, may be known to dilute the intellectual quality in a home. The family dynamic becomes, on the whole, less mentally-enriching as everyone must alter his behavior to help the least adept member learn to survive in the world. An only child never has to contend with such a cerebral decrease. In fact, firstborns decrease in IQ upon the arrival of a baby, but over time -- perhaps through teaching babies, which enables them to express and organize their knowledge -- they overtake the younger sibling.

Because of this, onlies are highly verbal and intelligent, logically resembling the firstborn child in conscientiousness and achievement. While they may never gain the particular skills a firstborn does through surrogate parenting and tutoring younger siblings, they also never experience their family getting "dumbed down" when a baby crawls onto the scene.

Babies -- Totally Pampered?
Think the youngest member of the family is bound to be coddled and allowed to get away with anything? This stereotype of the baby of the family may be vaguely accurate, but it is generally vastly overstated. In reality, these children are similar to the youngest of the middle children if they are close in age, meaning they get the smaller share of their parents' resources. However, if their siblings are much older, babies may be as forceful and ambitious as firstborns. In any case, they tend to suffer less from low self-esteem than middle children.

Here's Why: Scientifically, most babies of families fit into the category of middle children -- slightly lower in intelligence and drive than firstborns, more humorous and affectionate, more prone to risk-taking. There are, however, a few caveats. If a gap between the second-to-last sibling and the last sibling is substantial -- say, 10 years -- the baby will have the experience of a firstborn, as parents are again entirely fixated on this child. If the gap between siblings is smaller and the mother is entering menopause, the last child is truly the last she will be able to bear, and can thus never be replaced. Because of this, older parents may subconsciously accord these little ones special status, upping their attention quotient, and thus, their self-esteem.

Babies may also be considered whinier and more helpless because, due to their size and lack of power in comparison to their older siblings, they plead and cry for parental protection and their share of resources. Babies may also be perceived as overindulged; while they do not necessarily enjoy exclusive parental attention, they may enjoy a good deal of "surrogate" parental attention from older siblings, thus raising their confidence. On the whole, however, they have not been shown to be significantly different from any other non first-born children.

Middle Kids-- Are They Always Likeable?
"Later-borns" as they're called, are thought to be generally agreeable types, though in fact this stereotype is only partially true: While they may be really nice guys on a personal level, they are also more likely to be politically and ideologically radical. In personality tests, these later-borns rate as more affectionate and more agreeable than their siblings, but they are also more likely to be the family rebel, diverging from the more conservative values of the firstborn.

These two traits are not necessarily contradictory. In a 2001 study, Sulloway noted that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a famous middle child, first practiced his diplomacy when his youngest brother was teasing his eldest sister. Later on, while still pro-peace, he challenged the status quo. Like King, other middle kids may be at once tactful and unconventional. In a 1998 Canadian study, later-borns self-identified as open to new and radical ideas 2.3 times more than firstborns did. In separate studies, Sulloway found that revolutionary leaders Fidel Castro, Ho Chi Minh and Vladimir Lenin, among others, were later-borns -- as were controversial scientists Charles Darwin, Renée Descartes and Copernicus. These children are also more likely to take physical risks. A 1968 Columbia University study showed later-borns to be 1.6 times more likely than firstborns to engage in dangerous sports like football, hockey and rugby (with firstborns choosing tennis, track and swimming).

Here's Why: They may be amenable because, hemmed in on each side by siblings, they are forced to identify with their peers in order to thrive. To gain goodwill from the family, "They also use low-power strategies like being affectionate, warm and humorous," says Sulloway. But no matter: They don't get anywhere near as many parental goodies as firstborns or even babies. According to a 1977 study, in families with more than two children, middle kids received about 10 percent less care from birth to age 18 than did the firstborn and the last-born. It's mathematical: In a family of three, a firstborn gets 100 percent of parental resources until the second child comes along, then the resources are split 50-50. Finally, a baby comes along, and resources are split evenly -- 33 percent each; if another pops out, it's 25 percent for everyone. However, eventually, all older children leave home, and the baby gets 100 percent of the resources, if only for a year. In this equation, the middle child never receives the full 100 percent attention.

How can middles up their attention quotient? By trying something -- anything -- to put the focus on them. "These younger siblings must look for some way to differentiate themselves," says Sulloway. From an evolutionary standpoint, it doesn't make sense for later-borns to compete for the "surrogate parent" niche that the firstborn has filled, so they must search for another spot. To do so, they explore far-out ideas and unconventional activities because the potential payoff is huge. "If they try figure skating, they may break a leg, but they may be really good and show their parents that they have a great future." The possible cost of a broken leg is small when compared to the possible gain of total parental concentration, which is why the later-born is going to try for that back flip.

Firstborns -- Guaranteed to Be First in Class?
The stereotype of the super-successful oldest sibling seems to be pretty accurate. In a study of corporate heads, 43 percent were oldest children (33 percent were middles and only 23 percent were the youngest). These kids also earn more Nobel Prizes and MBAs than their brothers and sisters, and make up a larger percentage of U.S. surgeons and members of Congress. Personality tests show them to be highly conscientious, and their families consider them to be type A personalities. A 1999 study of how siblings saw one another revealed that firstborns were more likely to be perceived as organized, responsible and accomplished.

And, well, they're smarter. A 2007 survey of over 241,000 Norwegian 18- and 19-year-olds showed that firstborns boasted three more IQ points than second-borns (from then on, each sibling displayed one IQ point lower than the preceding sibling). Some scientists argue that in addition to the fact that pure IQ is not an indication of success, this minor intellectual difference ultimately has no bearing on the future. However, Sulloway contends that it can have major developmental repercussions. "Two IQ points could be worth 40 points on your SAT scores, and if Harvard is only accepting 680 and you get 640, your life will be changed," he says. "It's a big deal when it's about cut-offs, so small details can set in motion pathways that, over time, might have a cascade effect."

Here's Why: In practical terms, parents are able to give 100 percent of their resources to a firstborn. That means this child gains all of the attention -- emotional, intellectual, financial, linguistic -- that parents can give until the second baby comes along. Therefore, the firstborn, who has at least nine months of undivided attention, has a developmental advantage, which can lead to higher educational and occupational status.

From a Darwinian perspective, parents invest more in their firstborns because it benefits their genetic continuation. "By the time a firstborn has reached seven years old, he has survived all the childhood diseases that kill you by then," says Sulloway. Since the first years are fragile, a parent has an impetus to devote more to a healthy seven-year-old, who has a better chance than a three-year-old of carrying on familial DNA. Usually, this raised level of dedication is accidental or subconscious, as evidenced by a study of vaccination rates in the U.K. in 1970 that found that firstborns were vaccinated 68 percent of the time, second-borns 58 percent, third-borns 50 percent, fourth-borns 39 percent and fifth-borns only 34 percent of the time. But in some societies, older-child favoritism can also be deliberate. Case in point: In a study that took place across 39 non-Western cultures, scientists found that firstborns were given more elaborate birthrights, inheritance and control over their younger siblings.

Perhaps most notably, the firstborn usually chooses -- or is pushed into -- the role of a surrogate parent, helping to care for and teach younger siblings, thereby practicing being assertive, confident and dominant, early -- and earns parental rewards for doing so.

Oldest children are domineering achievers, middles are agreeable doormats, babies are coddled whiners and only children are spoiled brats. These stereotypes of birth order have circulated since the early 20th century, when a contemporary of Sigmund Freud, M.D., Alfred Adler, M.D., theorized that our personalities are profoundly influenced by our places in the family tree. Since then, the study of birth order has remained controversial, with a mass of scientists insisting that the studies of families, with their myriad of differences, are too flawed to prove anything. An opposing camp of scientists, however, are armed with an increasingly substantial arsenal of studies that seem to point to birth order's influence on our intelligence, our character and our life experience. So if we are affected, how -- and how much?

Limits on the Impact Birth Order Has
Multiple scientific studies suggest that birth order -- and the resulting family dynamic -- can have a small but important effect on intelligence, personality, education and career. Of course, other factors hold a far greater influence. A seminal 1987 study that questioned how siblings, who share half their DNA with one another, could be so different found that 40 percent of personality variance is genetic, 35 percent springs from each sibling's necessarily divergent life experience and five percent is due to birth order. Moreover, studies that support the birth order effect focus on hard numbers and generalities, so they simply can't account for each individual, nor do they solidify our fate.

Leading Expert's Guide to Birth Order

We spoke with Frank J. Sulloway, Ph.D., a visiting scholar at the Institute of Personality and Social Research at the University of California-Berkeley and the author of "Born to Rebel: Birth Order, Family Dynamics and Creative Lives," to find out how each stereotype holds up to scientific research.

8 comments:

The Wanderers' Daughter said...

It's very interesting. I spent seven years with a "baby" who was indeed rather pampered and unambitious, before meeting my husband - a first-born and unquestionably the most reliable, successful and intelligent of his siblings. He's the one who takes the weight of the world on his shoulders and never complains, and who always takes responsibility. I love that about him.

MotherMotherOcean said...

I talk a lot about birth order and its effects and lack of effects on siblings. It is interesting stuff.

I am an only child. I am hoping for something more complicated for Zubin.

Quackster said...

Very engaging and interesting post on birth order. No wonder I always feel responsible in taking care of my younger siblings. Thanks for the info!

rosemary said...

I am so fascinated by birth order. I am a middle and my husband is a first in his immediate family but a middle if you consider all his father's children. I also think it's interesting to consider gender roles in birth order, which adds a wrinkle to it all.

Annie Coe said...

I can say as a middle child that I am likeable and I am the rebel of the family :-).

Snowflowers Mum said...

this is fascinating.

I am clearly perpetuating the long thought concepts in this article.

sigh.

Hajar said...

I read elsewhere about the study on birth orders, and with each new article read; it just becomes all the more fascinating.

Susie of Arabia said...

This is a topic that I have always been interested in reading about. I wound up with a first-born husband, and he definitely fits the mold. Of course there will always be mitigating circumstances - like for example, being the only female with several male siblings - that can make a difference. Great post, Yoli!