Wednesday, December 01, 2010

How Much Does Birth Order Shape Our Lives?

There are lots of expectations and assumptions about how birth order may shape our adult lives, and many of them go back ages. Centuries ago, the oldest son had huge incentives to stay on track and live up to family expectations - that's because, by tradition, he was set to inherit almost everything.

"Historically the practice of primogeniture was very common in Europe," says Frank Sulloway, a visiting scholar at the Institute of Personality and Social Research at the University of California, Berkeley. "So firstborns had every reason to preserve the status quo and be on good terms with their parents."

Now you may think any "first born" effect would have completely disappeared in modern times. But not so, say experts who study birth order. Researchers first examined the status of firstborns among Washington power brokers in 1972.

"I expected that there would be a disproportionately high number of firstborns among members of Congress" says psychologist Richard Zweigenhaft of Guilford College. "And that's exactly what I found."

Out of 121 representatives and senators included in his sample, Zweigenhaft found that 51 were firstborns, 39 were middle children, and 31 were youngest children. It wasn't a huge overrepresentation of firstborns, but the difference, he says, is too significant to ignore.

Several surveys and studies conducted throughout the years have found that firstborns do edge out later-borns in lots of high-achieving professions, from corporate CEOs to college professors to U.S. presidents and Supreme Court justices. There's even evidence that firstborn children are about 3 IQ points smarter than their second-born siblings.

So what nudges oldest children to be conscientious, striving achievers? One factor is that firstborns tend to get undivided parental resources, explains Sulloway.

"When the second [child] comes along, the oldest still gets half of all that [attention], so younger siblings never have a chance to catch up," he says.

It's not that mothers and fathers intend to parent differently — oftentimes it just works out that way. Partly it's the inexperience that makes some first-time parents go overboard: signing children up for every lesson and activity imaginable, for example.

Experts say it's never entirely predictable how birth order may influence our personalities, behaviors or family dynamics — there are plenty of firstborns who don't fit the mold.

"The one thing you can say about birth order is that it's not absolutely deterministic of how people's lives turn out," says Sulloway.

Experts say it's just one small piece of the puzzle.

"I'm not sure I would say that birth order plays a strong role in who we become," Zweigenhaft says. "Birth order contributes to who we become."

After all, we're all amalgams of many childhood influences, from teachers and peers to random life events, including turns of good luck and bad.

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