Conventional knowledge, as gathered from history, mythology and literature, has always differentiated human personality types based on the birth order. But it is only in the recent century that scientific evidence is brought to bear on the subject. Today, based upon numerous surveys and scholarly studies conducted on the subject, it is fairly clear that birth order impacts aspects of personality. But there is disagreement among scholars as to the exact correlations between personality traits and birth order. The rest of this essay will peruse source work and Internet sources to arrive at current understanding on the relationship between birth order and personality.
The CBS News article titled Birth Order Affects Smarts, Personality (2010) forwards the view that the eldest among siblings tend to have superior intelligence while the younger ones “get better grades and are more outgoing”. Using robust methodology, a team of researchers from Lawrence High School in Cedarhurst, N.Y., surveyed 90 pairs of siblings in high school. After crosschecking for facts, the team found that the “first-borns had higher test scores in math and verbal ability, while the later born children had better grade point average in English and math.”. (CBS News, 2010) In a similar experiment conducted on a separate set of students, the research team further found that younger siblings are more “extroverted, sentimental and forgiving” their seniors (who are also more likely to be perfectionists). They also observed that older siblings act as mentors to the younger ones and are generally less competitive – this perhaps explains their lesser grades. Those low in birth order also express an adventurous streak in them, which reflects a greater sense of security that they possess. Thus far, the findings are in line with logic and conventional wisdom has hinted in history, mythology and literature. But these findings are by no means comprehensive and are not backed up by universal consensus from the community of psychologists and sociologists.
The journalist teams of Geoffrey Cowley and Karen Springen have reviewed the subject of birth order and have assembled interesting points in their Newsweek article titled First Born Later Born which appeared in July 2011. Drawing key insights from Frank Sulloway’s book Born to Rebel, Cowley and Springen place forward the view that “firstborns, whatever their age, sex, class or nationality, specialize in defending the status quo while later-borns specialize in toppling it” (Cowley & Springen, 2011). This implies that those with same birth-rank share more things in common compared to what they share with their own siblings.
Many of Sulloway’s educated surmises would be proven by his findings. Some of it is as follows. Sulloway believed that firstborns grow up with the understanding that they are “bigger, stronger and smarter than their younger siblings” (Cowley & Springen, 2011) This leads them to develop a dominant and assertive personality. Given that their younger siblings intrude on their existing relationship with their parents, there is bound to be jealousy and status-consciousness in the elder sibling’s mental makeup. In the same vein of argument, Sulloway proposed and proved that the elder sibling is more conscientious and more conservative than the later-borns. This explains why people such as Rush Limbaugh, George Wallace and Newt Gingrich are first-borns and very politically conservative. Conversely, by virtue of being only loosely connected to the existing family hierarchy, later-borns are more socially agreeable and more open to new experience. This correlates to the personalities of such charismatic leaders as Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. (both are later-borns). Typifying the group of personality traits associated with first-borns are Oprah Winfrey, Saddam Hussein, Clint Eastwood, Hillary Clinton, etc. Likewise, there are striking similarities in these later-born personalities – Madonna, Bill Gates, Gloria Steinem, David Letterman, Conan O’Brien, etc. – who all vindicate the ‘open to new experience’ quality of later-borns.
Despite copious evidence backing up the birth-order theory, there are always exceptions. Moreover, other factors like socio-economic condition, gender, family dysfunctionality, culture, etc. can either moderate or overcome the birth-order theory template. For example, as Jeffrey Kluger and Dan Cray note in their 2007 article for Time, there are several key factors that can impact the theory, with child abuse being a major one. In their words, “abusiveness is going to totally disrupt the birth-order effects we would expect” (Kluger & Cray, 2007).
Hence, while the source work articles perused for this essay do point to consistent proof for the birth-order theory, one cannot afford to treat it as universally true. On the contrary, the theory can serve as a useful guideline in ascertaining and predicting the character traits of an individual based on their position within the family hierarchy.
Cowley, G., & Springen, K. (1996, October 7). First Born, Later Born. Newsweek, 128(15), 68-70.
Kluger, J., & Cray, D. (2007, October 29). The Power of Birth Order. Time, 170(18), 48-49.
Study: Birth Order Affects Smarts, Personality. (2010, August 13). CBSNews. Retrieved from http://www.cbsnews.com/2100-205_162-6769590.html