Thoughts x
in an article about birth order, three children from the back

According to some theories, how you act can be determined by whether you were born first, last or somewhere in between.

An individual’s personality is influenced by myriad factors, including culture, home environment, school environment, family dynamics, social media access and more. Each of these variables affects people in different ways, influencing which personality traits, habits and behaviors develop. Like these factors, the order in which a person is born into their family can also affect their behavior, impact the way they see the world, and shape their identities. Although seemingly inconsequential, many psychologists believe that birth order can have a significant impact on individuals’ personalities.

Traits Associated With Birth Order

Based on birth order psychology, first-born, middle and youngest children each exhibit specific personality traits. Of course, every child is different, and personality traits are highly idiosyncratic; however, with that being said, birth order theory suggests that children, based on the order in which they were born into their family, fall into statistical groups that correlate with certain personality traits.

Typically, first-born children are natural leaders and high achievers. In families, the theory suggests that eldest children tend to be more structured in their time management and cautious in their behavior. Furthermore, eldest children are typically known to be more controlling, and often harbor an intense fear of failure. Additionally, only-children tend to share many characteristics of first-born children. According to birth order theory, only-children are often perfectionistic, diligent and mature.

The theory proposes that middle children, unlike first-born and only-children, tend to be people-pleasers with large social circles and strong friendships. Middle children are also usually adept at making peace in times of conflict. Additionally, middle children are known for being rebellious, exhibiting far less rule-following behavior than their older siblings. Lastly, youngest children tend to be the most free-spirited and easy-going children of the family. Oftentimes, youngest children are described as having a happy-go-lucky personality. Although youngest children may be known for their agreeableness, they also tend to be very attention-seeking and dependent on others.

Parental Influence

The impact of birth order on personality may be largely attributed to parental treatment. Whether consciously or not, as parents grow their family, they tend to raise each additional child slightly differently. According to mainstream psychology, there are specific roles and traits that children assume, based on the order that they were born. Even if they are not aware of it, many people hold stereotypical beliefs about how first, middle and youngest children will act. As a result, parents may unwittingly modify their interactions with their children, depending on their expectations. In the context of birth order, this information is highly relevant given that children are highly influenced by the way they interact with their parents, as well as their home environment. Further, parental treatment sincerely impacts the role that children assume within a family unit; this, too, can profoundly shape a child’s personality development and behavioral patterns.

History of Birth Order Psychology

The relationship between birth order and personality was first examined by a psychotherapist and psychologist named Alfred Adler in the 20th century. Adler began his line of research to better understand why siblings, being raised in the same household and by the same parents, turned out so differently from each other. Adler developed the theory that birth order could be used to understand the development of children’s personality traits and predict youth outcomes. Despite the fact that Adler’s research occurred well over a century ago, most modern-day birth order psychology is based off of Adler’s theories and data. In the years since Adler originally formulated his birth order theory, other studies have attempted to examine the impact of birth order. Interestingly, many recent findings contradict Adler’s research.

Mixed Findings

The research behind the impact of birth order on youth outcomes is mixed. Some studies show consistent, unique personality traits among first-born, middle, and youngest children; however, other data indicates that the order in which a child was born may not be as influential as previously thought. This is especially true when assessing its impact on adults, rather than in young children. Among adults, more recent studies have found no significant relationship between risk-taking behavior and later-born children. Consequently, some psychologists have arrived at the conclusion that birth order influences personality in children, but that the impact fades with time.

According to birth order theory, compared to later-born children, first-borns tend to be more intelligent. However, the research behind this claim remains relatively weak. In the past, many studies have claimed that first-born children have significantly higher IQs, performing better on IQ tests as early as age one. However, other studies have found that the differences in IQ levels between first and later-born children are statistically significant, yet, for all practical purposes, meaningless. While firstborns do tend to perform better on IQ tests, they only outperform later-born children by one IQ point. Most psychologists agree that a one-point difference cannot affect overall lifetime success or achievement, and is, ultimately, inconsequential.

In 2015, psychologists came together to determine the impact of birth order by analyzing data with greater scrutiny, and in greater detail. By combining sets of data from three separate national panels, it was found that its impact is, at most, very minimal. Among all the datasets, there were no statistically significant differences in emotional stability, extraversion or agreeableness. Furthermore, the study did not find that the order in which a child was born influenced either imagination or conscientiousness. As a result of these more recent findings, many psychologists now believe that it is irrelevant to personality, behavior and intelligence.

Future of the Theory

Birth order is a highly popular and captivating subject within the field of psychology. In spite of a lack of reliable evidence, birth order theory remains deeply embedded in family dynamics, parental expectations and popular psychology. It is commonly cited as an explanation for children’s personalities and behaviors, but in reality, its impact on children’s development is insignificant. Although interesting to study, the impact of birth order on personality and youth outcomes is minimal, if not entirely irrelevant. Ultimately, evidence indicates that birth order theory is a concept of the past.

Writer Profile

Nora Weiss

George Washington University
Political Science, Psychology

Nora Weiss is a rising junior at George Washington University. Writing has been a lifelong passion and tool for self-expression for Nora, and she is very excited to be part of the Study Breaks team.

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