Birth Order Theory Essay - Essay Prowess

Birth Order Theory Essay


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Birth Order Theory


This paper seeks to discuss the birth order theory which attempts to define, describe and predetermine personality traits based on the order with which a sibling is in a family. Personality traits have been observed to differ with birth order such that the first born sibling in a family tends to have characters that are generally different from those exhibited in the middle and last born siblings.  There are factors that affect human personality other than birth order such as gender, socio economic status, level of education and so on. However, birth order has in itself created a niche for itself in the world of psychology since the 19th Century and literature material grew considerably in the 20th Century with the onset of deeper insight and study in the world of psychology. This paper will highlight discussions arising from results of numerous findings which have been made over the decades with regard to the theory of birth order.


The Birth Order Theory was first proposed by Sir Francis Galton in 1874 when his book titled English Men of Science was published. This theory proposes that each person is in some way or another affected by the order with which they were born that is either as a first, second, third born or last born (Walton, 2009). Sir Galton based this theory on his research on prominent personalities in positions of power where he observed that the largest group was composed of first born sons. He made reason of this by acknowledging that this was not purely by chance alone but also due to the proposed notion that birth order does have a significant effect on intelligence, success and many other outcomes.

The Birth Order Theory

Alfred Adler is considered as one of the most prominent Psychologists of the 21st Century as he forged the theory of Individual Psychology which proposes that all of mankind is born with a sense of helplessness and inferiority. As such, this theory put across the idea that human beings seek to be acceptance within the world around them which basically entails fighting for superiority. The desire to be accepted, he observed was what led to the development of individual personality. He concurred with the writings of Sir Francis Galton that birth order was indeed a major contributing factor to the fight for acceptance and the development of individual personality (Walton, 2009). Adler pointed out that older children were expected to be more mature and in most instances demonstrated a sense of resentment when other siblings were born into the family. Arguably, the youngest siblings were observed to be in such a position as to be spoilt never really being capable of outgrowing the title of baby in the family. Siblings in the middle on the other hand were observed to bear personalities which showed rebellion, exclusion, even tempered and in most instances are known to fiercely fight to find their place in society.

Effects on Personality

In the book Born to Rebel, Sulloway (1996) provided for the idea that personality attributes developed during childhood years serve to reconcile the relationship of birth order with what is considered as scientific radicalism (Marinia & Kurtzb, 2011). His research findings showed a consistency with the evolutionary theory such that as with mammals, human children do indeed fight for parental resources through the creation of distinctive niches. As such, children born as firstborns find themselves in an already established position which expects them to act responsibly, be competitive as well as expecting them to conform to conventional norms. Children born after the first born on the other hand tend to be playful, are generally cooperative and in some instances exhibit tendencies towards rebellious behaviors (Marinia & Kurtzb, 2011). This is usually their perceived means with which to distinguish themselves from other sibling in the family. It is worthy to note that research has indicated that children born after the firstborn who become scientist during adulthood tend to lean towards unconventional ideals leading to rather radical scientific revolutions as were the psychoanalysis and Darwinian evolutions.

Firstborn children are known to be dominant over younger siblings and more so receive more parental favor which in effect serves to bring about a development of personality characteristics which are generally consistent with parental interests. On the other hand, siblings born after the firstborn tend to seek to develop personality character traits which are essentially different from those exhibited by the firstborn as a means with which to attract more of the available parental resources (Marinia & Kurtzb, 2011).

Some aspects of Sulloway’s findings conform to the existing knowledge on human personality. The birth order theory provides a variable with which to distinguish siblings in a family with research findings on behavior genetics of personality upholding the importance on the significance of the occurrence of unshared environmental influences (Marinia & Kurtzb, 2011).

For many years, the Birth Order Theory has been considered as a standardized variable in the field of psychological research. However, attempts to adequately link the Birth Order Theory to personality traits due to the prevalence of weakly consistent findings (Marinia & Kurtzb, 2011). Therefore as much as firstborn children are said to be better conformers to conventional values and are driven by the need to be successful achievers, such effects could as well be as a result of differences arising in social standing or sibling size. Such misgivings on birth order effects on personality development have resulted in researchers make conclusions that birth order does not in any profoundly significant way strongly mould personality in a manner that can be clearly defined.

However, some research on family environments as a cause of distinctiveness in sibling personalities offers much needed insight explaining the rather minute effects on personality as a result of birth order. Sulloway also observed that research conducted using large sample sizes could aid in better understanding of the subtle effects of birth order on individual personality. He observed that firstborns bear a status that tends to have a positive correlate with regard to surgency and conscientiousness while negatively correlating with openness, emotional strength and agreeableness when factors such as age, gender, sib ship size and social status are held constant.

It was observed that parents tend to invest more in raising their first born children as compared to investments dedicated to the raising of siblings born latter on. This tends to motivate an occurrence in differences in strategies with which siblings in a family apply to solicit for parental resources. According to Sulloway, firstborns tend to exhibit personality traits, attitudes and belief systems which reflect parental personality traits, attitudes and belief systems in an attempt to sustain parental status quo (Marinia & Kurtzb, 2011).  On the other hand, siblings born later tend to employ strategies intended to solicit for parental resources which are different from those applied by firstborns. They are known to develop personality traits, attitudes and belief systems which are not similar to those exhibited by both the parents and first born siblings.

So as to appropriately study the effect of birth order on personality traits, Sulloway structured personality traits into five principal dimensions which are openness, agreeableness, surgency, conscientiousness and emotional strength (Booth & Kee, 2009). According to Sulloway, the firstborn standing is inclined to positively correlate to surgency (which is incorporates boldness, dominance and sociability) mainly due to the inclination towards minimizing probable diversions from parental siblings by exhibiting dominance over the other siblings in the family. However, the first born standing was found to negatively correlate with agreeableness (which entails flexibility, warmness and selflessness). This is primarily due to the domineering position of the firstborn on other siblings. So as to attract parental resources other siblings are inclined to minimize incidences in which there is confrontation with the firstborn and are by default agreeable (Marinia & Kurtzb, 2011).

There is also a positive correlation among children in the first born standing with regards to conscientiousness (which relates to traits such as reliability, carefulness and good personal organization) which is consistent with the firstborn’s inclination towards maintaining the status quo exhibited by parents. It is worthy to note that in most cases, firstborn children have the initial advantage over other siblings due to the fact that prior to the birth of their other siblings they do enjoy exclusive rights to parental resources (Marinia & Kurtzb, 2011). As such, there arises a sense of anxiety amongst firstborns upon the arrival of other siblings due to the possible diversion of parental resources. As a result firstborns negatively correlate with emotional strength (which entails feelings of security, even-temperedness and a sense of ease). Lastly, firstborn standing according to Sulloway tends to negatively correlate with openness (attributes such as creativity, cultured and knowledgeable) (Booth & Kee, 2009). Openness is known to facilitate the pursuit of strategic options in this case with regards to parental resources which in most instances are more evident among other siblings other than the first born through the inherent motivation to use strategies not envisaged by parents. As stated earlier this is because they attempt to employ other means with which to attract parental resources rather than employ those already being applied by the first born.

Effects on Intelligence

            Intelligence in itself is a factor of personality which is in some way or another affected by an individual’s birth order. As much as longitudinal studies have failed to show the connection between birth order and intelligence, cross sectional studies tend to support studies that underscore the theory that relates intelligence to birth order (Kristensen & Bjerkedal, 2007). However, it is important to point out that as much as there are studies that tend to delink intelligence to birth order, findings from such studies concur that it better for one to be born as the first sibling in a family rather than be born after the first born.

The most popular explanations to such findings is the fact that the firstborn child has more parental resources as compared to the subsequently occurring siblings who have to share available resources with the firstborn in the family. The firstborn is also accorded more parental attention prior to the birth of the second sibling (Kristensen & Bjerkedal, 2007). By so doing ensures that he or she receives more intellectual stimulation during his or her development as a child as well as a better education due to the dedication of available resources to a single child that is the first born.

Another logical explanation as to why it is more beneficial to be born as the first child could be because he or she is raised in a more peaceful and mature surroundings, is subjected to more mature dialogues which are mainly consistent with adult vocabulary (Kanazawa, 2011). Younger siblings do not have access to such privileges given the fact that there is the presence of rather immature conversations from the elder sibling (Hatton & Martin, 2010). Responsibilities accorded to elder siblings to be in charge of the younger siblings also ensure that they learn how to take up responsibilities at a younger age thus mature faster.

There are also some schools of thought that believe that parental strictness with regard to the first born promotes a higher level of intelligence as compared to younger siblings who the parents tend to treat with a higher degree of leniency. The difference causes differences in intelligence levels among siblings. Other psychologists believe that younger siblings especially the lastborns are more favored and thus accorded more parental resources which tend to bear positively on the intellectual development of younger siblings (Kristensen & Bjerkedal, 2007). It is indeed true that some studies have found out that there are some cases where younger siblings exhibit intelligence levels that are higher than those of the eldest siblings while other studies hold it true that older siblings have higher intelligence levels compared to younger siblings. Other studies however, have found no concrete relationships between sibling degrees of intelligence with birth order.

Most of the studies carried out on the subject however show that there is some level of association with regard to birth order and intelligence. A study carried out by Burton in 1967 those in families with two to five children, the intelligence of the firstborn children was observed to be marginally higher than that of younger brothers or sisters. It is important to point that results from the study indicated that the mean discrepancy in the standard intelligence test scores between the younger and the eldest siblings was just but a small figure. The conclusion thereof was that differences in intelligence levels were not large enough to result in a correlation with the large difference registered with regard to personal achievements as a result of birth order (Kanazawa, 2011).

It is important to point out that other than birth order there are a number of other factors which play a significant part in influencing individual intellectual development (Hatton & Martin, 2010). These factors could as well be schools attended or the socioeconomic situation of the area where one was raised up in both which can translate into either positive or negative effect on intellectual development (Hatton & Martin, 2010).

Effects on Interpersonal Relationships

            Psychologists have carried out numerous surveys and studies in an attempt to better understand what factors make people to exhibit complex diversities as well as uniqueness in personalities (Gordon, 2012). One factor which has been more researched than other factors has been that of birth order. Previous research indicates that each order whether the youngest, middle or the eldest bear some characteristics that appear common among other people of a similar birth order. Interpersonal relationships are also by extension affected in some way or another by the birth order theory (Schilling, 2007). The above statement is arrived at logically such that since birth order is considered to have a profound influence on a person’s personality trait. Considering that persons of a similar birth order have common personality traits then a psychologist may come to such a conclusion as to birth order having an influence on the interpersonal relationships that a person experiences.

Much of the research carried out with respect to birth order has been inconclusive. This is because most research tends determine personality traits in older children apparently sideling children in other birth orders (Booth & Kee, 2009). A study conducted by Nyman (1995) revealed findings that suggested perceive birth orders to have the similar characteristics whereby participants showed that firstborn siblings were more highly regarded with siblings in the middle coming in second and lastborns coming in third with the only child order being with the most resented character traits (Schilling, 2007).

Kevin Leman (2000) published a book titled The New Birth Order: Why You Are the Way You Are, which offered insights into the factors that should be addressed in the determination of measurements for birth order as well as highlighting stereotypical traits common to each birth order. Leman (2000) took the time to explore and expound on nine significant aspects worthy of considering during the examination of birth orders (Schilling, 2007). These include: spacing which in this context refers to the years between siblings; sibling gender where the sequence of birth according to gender is considered; mental, physical and emotional differences; sibling death which tends to make the child in the order below to be elevated to the order above; adoptions which may affect birth order depending on the age of the child at adoption; parent child relationships which determine the parenting style and quality of personal care as well as values a parent holds when  according commitments to a child; parent birth order for both the father and mother; relationship between the parents since parenting styles are in one way or another passed onto the siblings; the parents’ critical eye and the effects on siblings depending on the birth order and lastly, the apparent conjoining of two families as a result of either divorce or death in which case a step family may arise (Schilling, 2007).

The research work carried out by Leman (2000) with regard to personality characteristics influenced by birth order in many aspects supports the findings published by Adler (Schilling, 2007). He found out that older siblings were more inclined to being better organized, conscientious, pegged on goal oriented achievements, self reliant, perfectionists as well as being believers of authority. He also noted that such positive attributes in character traits aided first born siblings in attaining a high degree of academic and professional excellence were the same attributes that resulted in difficulties keeping meaningful close relationships. Leman (2000) also observed that middle siblings tended to exhibit conflicting traits such that where some are sociable others prefer to be loners, either patient or impatient, avoid conflicts or conversely become aggressive (Schilling, 2007).

Studies mad with regard to interpersonal relationships showed that elder sisters with brothers who were younger tended to feel as being in powerful positions while younger sisters with elder brothers considered themselves as having low power influences. This suggests that perceptions of power relative to birth order are truncated into individual interpersonal relations. It was found out that elder brothers tended to marry the youngest sisters while youngest brothers tended to marry oldest sisters (Gordon, 2012).


A number of differences are known to exist among the siblings in a single family. In as much as individual intelligence and intellectual development are dependent of variables such as family size, gender and age spacing along with other factors such as expectations expected by a child’s parents, it is important to consider birth order as a premise for which other factors tend to operate. Evident disparities in results from birth order studies, it is obvious that more incisive and frequent studies should be carried out without making wide generalizations which result in the ambiguity of results leading to inconclusive findings.


Walton, J. L. (2009). The Effect of Birth Order on Intelligence. Missouri Western State University. Retrieved on April 8, 2013 from

Schilling, R. M. (2007).The Effects of Birth Order on Interpersonal Relationships. Retrieved on April 8, 2013 from

Kristensen, R., & Bjerkedal, T. (2007) Explaining the Relation between Birth Order and Intelligence, Science, Pp. 316-1717.

Kanazawa, S. (2011). Intelligence, Birth Order, and Family Size. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 2012 vol. 38 no. 9 Pp. 1157-1164.

Marinia, V. A. & Kurtzb,J. E. (2011). Birth order differences in normal personality traits: Perspectives from within and outside the family. Elsevier Vol. 51, 2011, Pp. 910–914.

Booth, A. L., & Kee, H. J. (2009). Birth order matters: the effect of family size and birth order on educational attainment.  Journal of Population Economics 2009, Vol. 22, Issue 2, Pp 367-397.

Hatton, T. J., & Martin, R. M. (2010). The effects on stature of poverty, family size, and birth order: British children in the 1930s. Oxford Economic Papers, Vol. 62, Issue1, Pp. 157-184.

Gordon, J. (2012). Birth order: investigating its effects on personality, empathy, achievement and perceived academic performance (Doctoral dissertation, Dublin Business School).


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