Family Ties on the Rise: “The Birth Order Effect”

Every Friday night, much like Lorelei and Rory Gilmore, my household of five travels to our grandparents for a family dinner. My mum, dad, older sister, younger brother and myself pile into our car for the 25-minute drive across town. Last Friday, this drive once again, resulted in a session of Carpool Karaoke.

As I broke into my “rah rah ah-ah-ah” solo during Lady Gaga’s pop hit Bad Romance, my dad casually mentioned that I was “the classic middle child”. While this comment wasn’t unusual, it did grab my attention.

It got me thinking whether my personality obviously links me to my birth position in comparison to my siblings. Maybe I do have a flair for theatricality, but is this the effect of my birth order, or has my childhood shaped the person I am?

Poker Face

Certain research has supported the popular culture belief that your position in your family defines your personality.

One of the most noticeable assumptions is that birth order is related to eminence.

“Eminence: outstanding intellectual achievement”

Studies have concluded that first-borns have better school grades and achieve the highest scores (of their siblings) in verbal aptitude. Oldest children are also overrepresented amongst the male science community, and a recent study of 20 CEOs found 19 to be first-borns.

However, this understanding has been challenged and “The Birth Order Effect” is not the only explanation. This could be due to first-borns having increased opportunities and academic exposure.

It may also be due to the finding that first-born children have up to 30 minutes more quality time with their parents, then a second-born child of similar age and family environment.

This runs true for “only” children who “disproportionately” excel in educational endeavours.

The following traits are the believed Birth Order Effects for first-born, middle-born and last-born siblings.

First-borns have the lowest anxiety levels, the highest self esteem and are most likely to praise siblings. (To my older sister, please take note!). They also have a higher superego and are more persistent, ambitious, aggressive and independent leaders. In the case of the oldest child having special needs, middle-born children often step up to take on this first-born role.

Middle-borns have the lowest self-esteem of any group and while they are self-deprecating, they are also the most joyful and “attention seeking”. These personality styles are often described as casual and harmonious with higher individual tolerance. In my case, the result of having to mediate one too many sibling fights.

The literature available on youngest children is minimal. This may be due to the fact that those who are the youngest sibling may also be the second-born or first-born. However, in a group of three siblings, the youngest tends to be overly sensitive, withdrawn and reflective.

Perfect Illusion

Should these personality assumptions be taken with a grain of salt?

This multitude of research does point to certain aspects of our personality being caused by our birth order. However, these findings are based on studies that do not take into account internal and external influences. As family size can dictate birth order, the idea that most science men and CEOs are first-borns may not be due to their intelligence and leadership traits. Rather, first-borns are more common then any other birth order, a fact that is often not taken into consideration during studies. Of the 65,000 Google Scholar articles that analyse this topic, “the vast majority suffers from this problem”.

A recent study in 2016 has concluded that “The Birth Order Effect” accounts for less then 1% of variability in people’s personality and eminence.

Birth order is a bit like a horoscope, in that it presents you with vague enough traits that it’s easy to project them onto yourself.”

 

Applause

While many believe that “The Birth Order Effect” is able to accurately predict personality, plenty of research is able to disprove this theory. Most traits that are suggested are vague enough that individuals are able to project this theory onto their personalities; much like a horoscope.

Social rank in the family is also a reliable predictor. While eminence may be higher for first-borns, this can be explained by the quality time and opportunities provided by the family. Similarly, to the attention seeking trait for middle borns.

So, the next time I’m singing in the car, maybe it is the result of my innate need for attention, or a specific personality trait. Perhaps, I had a song in my heart that only Lady Gaga could fill. Either way, despite popular belief, it seems that, baby, I wasn’t born this way.

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