What is the relationship between birth order and personality?

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Although there is debate over the effects of birth order on personality, with some researchers claiming there is no effect, studies have found subtle differences between firstborn and later-born children; the order of children’s births has also been found to influence how the parents treat them.
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A child’s order of birth into a family may influence how the parents treat the child. This treatment, in turn, can produce personality differences. Most research has focused on comparing the firstborn child with later-born children. Thus, most of what is known about birth order has to do with ways in which firstborns and later-borns are different.

Parents tend to be overly anxious with regard to their first child. The birth of their first child is a major event in their lives, and it can be somewhat threatening. They have never been parents before, and they do not know what to do in many instances. Thus, many parents tend to be overly restrictive with their first child, having many fears of the terrible things that may happen if they do not monitor and care for their child constantly. This anxiety can influence the personality of the child. Firstborns often grow up to be more anxious than later-born children. By the time parents have a second, third, or fourth child, they are more comfortable caring for children and know that they do not have to be overly concerned with protecting their child from every imaginable harm. Thus, they relax and allow the later-born children more freedom.

It should be made clear that this does not mean that every firstborn child is more anxious than every later-born child. It only means that there is a tendency, greater than could be expected by chance, for firstborns to be more anxious than later-borns. There will be many exceptions and instances where a firstborn is not anxious or where a later-born is.

Achievement and Risk Taking

When the firstborn child is growing up and until the birth of a sibling, the child has the parents all to himself or herself. This situation probably accounts for another personality difference of firstborns relative to later-borns: Firstborns tend to score higher on such measures of intelligence as intelligence (IQ) tests. When the later-born children come along, the parents will probably spend less time with them than they did with the first child; the later-born child will have as models the other children in the family. The first child had adults as models and thus may acquire a more adultlike interest in things—and therefore score higher on intellectual measures. This effect may account, in part, for the fact that firstborns achieve at a greater rate than later-borns. For example, there are more famous firstborn scientists (for their proportion in the population) than would be expected by chance.

Another difference in personality is found with the kinds of risks firstborns or later-borns will take. Firstborns will take risks if they believe that they can handle the situation safely but will be less likely to engage in behavior that exposes them to potential injury. Thus, firstborns are less likely than later-borns to be college football players. On the other hand, firstborns are overrepresented among astronauts and aquanauts. They would seem to be potentially dangerous occupations, but firstborns probably believe that they can avoid harm via good training and high-quality skills. Thus, the issue may be perceived harm: Firstborns may believe that they can avoid harm as astronauts or aquanauts, while it is extremely difficult to avoid injury in sports.

Creative Differences

Although differences in creativity have been found between firstborns and later-borns, it is important to also consider gender differences. By looking at both birth order and gender, creativity results become clear. Firstborn males tend to score higher on creativity measures than do later-born males. Creativity can be defined as the combination of originality and usefulness, and there are tests developed to measure it. When testing women, however, the results are the opposite: Later-born women score higher on creativity than firstborn women. This finding could be explained by the ways in which parents treat their firstborn child as well as how parents treat their female children. The firstborn female child has two disadvantages. Not only are the parents anxious and restrictive because she is a firstborn, but the parents are also likely to restrict female children more so than they do their male children. Thus, the female firstborn would be the most restricted of all the birth order and sex groupings. Other researchers have found that the female firstborn tends to grow up with traditional values, which some researchers believe tend to restrict creativity.

Applications of Birth Order Research

Knowledge of the effects of birth order often promotes greater self-understanding in those people who are most affected. For example, a male firstborn seeing his friends try out for the football team may have a dilemma. He knows that he does not wish to join them, but he feels pressured by the choices of his peers. His self-image makes him feel inadequate because he is not like his friends. If he knew the research findings concerning firstborns, however, he would realize that he might be quite courageous and risk taking in other pursuits but probably will not be when there is clear-cut physical danger. His personality was established long ago, as he grew up the firstborn child in his family. Thus, he would see the causes of his personality and be more self-accepting.

When people are anxious, they tend to talk. This talking may be an attempt to relieve their anxiety. This fact and the findings about birth order could be used in group situations to foster effective discussion. Thus, a teacher or a group therapist could make sure that the group was composed of a combination of firstborns and later-borns. The anxious firstborns will be likely to speak up, and discussion will be facilitated. If the group were all firstborns, there might be too many people talking at once, while if the group were all later-borns, there might be too little discussion. Thus, a mixture of firstborns and later-borns may produce the best group discussion.

Another application might be in changing people from their typical tendencies. Thus, if it is known that female firstborns tend not to be as creative because of a predilection toward traditional beliefs, one could educate the female firstborns about different ways of thinking. Education could focus on challenging some of the traditional beliefs by offering alternative, more questioning attitudes for the female firstborn to consider. This approach might increase the chances that the female firstborn would come up with creative solutions and ideas.

Birth order and gender difference findings can also serve as a basis for making interventions to help people in all the different birth order and gender combinations. The major recipient of help might be the female firstborn, since she has probably received an overly restrictive upbringing. Teachers or therapists, if aware of the tendency of some female firstborns to be inhibited in their challenging of society’s conventional beliefs, might help these individuals to think more critically. Male later-borns may also, to a lesser extent, be inclined toward this inhibited thinking, if generalizations from the research are correct. They, too, could benefit from training or assistance in greater critical thinking that challenges the conventional beliefs they have learned. It should be emphasized that conventional beliefs are not necessarily wrong; one should, however, learn to think for oneself and not accept everything one is told automatically.

Although firstborn men and later-born women perform the best on creativity measures, they are by no means immune to society’s conventions, which in some cases lead to an inhibition of creativity. Firstborn men seem to have a high need for social approval, which at times may inhibit creativity and lead to conformity. When this conformity is undesirable or restricts creativity, it needs to be overcome. Later-born women, although scoring more creatively than firstborn women, still have the burden of being female in a society that places many inhibitions on women. Everyone can use help to think more critically, to challenge what they have been taught, and in this way to increase the likelihood of creative thinking and of production of creative products.

Evolution of Research

Alfred Adler was an Austrian psychoanalyst who was a follower of Sigmund Freud. Adler, like several of Freud’s early followers, believed that Freud neglected the social context of his research, and Adler broke away to establish his own school of psychology, which he called individual psychology. Among the many concepts that formed the basis of Adler’s approach was his belief that birth order is worthy of study. He speculated in detail about how the ordinal position of the child affected the child’s personality.

For many years, research psychologists did not study birth order to any extent. One reason is that birth order is an actuarial variable, like age, gender, or social class, and psychologists did not view it as worthwhile to study. In 1959, however, Stanley Schachter published the book The Psychology of Affiliation, in which he showed that birth order is an important variable. Many other researchers started looking at birth order in their studies. Sometimes they had little understanding of what birth order should mean, but it was easy to ask subjects to list their birth order to see if any patterns became apparent. One problem was that the early researchers included only children (children with no siblings) as firstborns. It is now known that while these groups are sometimes similar, they are often different from one another. It is best to include children who have no siblings in a separate category. Unfortunately, there have been too few "only children" in the population for statistical testing. Thus, researchers often simply drop that group from their analysis. As a greater understanding of birth order has been gained, it has become possible to conduct research based on what is known rather than to treat birth order as simply one more variable.


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