The Impact of Birth Order on the Development of an Individual
University of Kentucky
Birth order is an important factor in determining the personality traits and behavior of an individual. Extensive studies have been done concerning this phenomenon over the years. Both the family environment and the interactions between parents, children, and siblings can affect how birth order comes into play in the formation of an individual. The examined studies showed that an individual’s birth order can help form their personality, can affect their goal setting process, can influence how they solve problems, and can determine how they behave socially. The studies focus mainly on firstborns and second or laterborns. The results of each study will be discussed as well as some general conclusions that span several studies.
The Impact of Birth Order on the Development of an Individual
The influence of birth order on personality is a phenomenon that has been long-studied.
It is clear that through the interactions of family members and the influence of the family
dynamics, that birth order is linked to not only certain personality traits, but also certain
decision-making mechanisms and social behavior. This topic is relevant to interpersonal communication because it examines how the relationships between parents and siblings shape the personalities and behaviors of the children. Birth order can have many effects on an individual. Birth order can help form an individual’s personality, influence how they make choices, modify how they problem-solve, and affect their social behavior.
Birth Order and the Age Effect
While many factors revolving around birth order can affect personality traits, the factor that has the most drastic impact is the age effect. In a study, Dixon (2008) and his colleagues found that personality traits can develop as a result of the family environment. Varying factors can make up the family environment, but not all factors lead to personality development. Surprisingly, it was found that gender and family size do not seem to impact the formation of personality traits. However, the age differences between siblings does have an impact on personality development. In the family environment, siblings will attempt to secure their status within the family. Siblings will compete amongst one another for parental investment or attention (Dixon et al, 2008). The idea of parental investment is an extensively studied topic in interpersonal communication. The parental contact a child has in their early years can shape many aspects of their behavior and personality. It only seems natural that this competition to secure family status would lead to personality development among siblings (Adler & Proctor, 2011).
Personality Development Due to Family Interactions
The amount of parental investment the child receives affects the development of certain personality traits. The two traits that develop heavily based upon birth order are extraversion and psychoticism. It was found that younger siblings are more extraverted and more psychotic, while conversely, older siblings are less extraverted and less psychotic. There are several explanations for this phenomenon. Younger siblings come into the family having to deal with sibling competition, whereas older siblings have less competition upon entering the family. The increased competition for the younger siblings forces them to become more extraverted to compete for parental investment. Additionally, older siblings often take care of younger siblings, causing the older siblings to become nurturing and the younger siblings to become more psychotic. While birth order affects many aspects of one’s personality, these two traits are highly impacted (Dixon et al, 2008). It is known that children are not born with a sense of identity and must develop their identity based on how others treat them. It is certainly possible that the differing treatment of each child by their parents and siblings could help form their personality (Adler & Proctor, 2011).
Birth Order and Making Decisions
Not only does birth order affect personality development, but it also can influence the decision-making mechanism that an individual selects. When studying birth order, Carette (2011) and his colleagues found that birth order impacts future adult goal preferences. There are two types of goal-setting mechanisms. The first is that of setting mastery goals, which are based upon self-referenced standards of competence. These goals are driven by a desire to master tasks, knowledge, and skills. Firstborns tend to prefer mastery goals, competing with themselves instead of with others. The other type of goal is a performance goal, which is based upon other-referenced standards of competence. These goals are driven by a desire to complete tasks in a way that makes the individual seem valuable to others. Secondborns tend to prefer performance goals in an attempt to prove themselves to others. It is clear that birth order affects not only current decisions, but also future decisions ( Carette et al, 2011). In interpersonal communication, it is known that individuals will often develop a self-concept based upon reflected appraisal. Secondborns and laterborns may be more influenced by the opinions of others, which causes them to select performance goals. With less sibling influence, firstborns may have a more self-serving view, which causes them to select mastery goals (Adler & Proctor, 2011).
Birth Order and Problem Solving
Another decision-making mechanism was studied in relation to birth order by Skinner and Fox-Francoeur (2010). It was found that firstborns and secondborns differ in the way that they choose to solve problems. There are two types of problem-solvers, adaptors and innovators. Adaptors prefer to use structure and rules when tackling their problems. Innovators prefer no structure and novel problem-solving. Firstborns are more likely to have been parented by traditional rules and are more likely to obey their parents. This causes firstborns to most likely be adaptors when it comes to problem-solving. Secondborns are more likely to have been raised with more relaxed parenting, causing them to become innovators (Skinner & Fox-Francoeur, 2010). The general trend that can be seen is that when it comes to decision making, firstborns are more task-driven and rule-dominated, while secondborns are eager to please others and offer up non-traditional solutions. Again, this goes back to the interactions within the family environment. How the parent chooses to guide and invest in their child directly influences the child in the present and in the future (Adler & Proctor, 2011).
Birth Order Influences on Social Behavior
In addition to personal traits and decision-making, birth order influences social behavior. Courtiol (2009) and his colleagues found that birth order influences investment behavior in social situations. It was found that firstborns are less trustful and reciprocate less. Firstborns receive a large amount of parental attention, which may lead them to feel the need to reciprocate less. Additionally, firstborns rely on structure and facts, which leads them to be less trusting. Laterborns are found to be more trusting and reciprocate more. Laterborns receive less parental attention, which may cause them to reciprocate more. Additionally, laterborns do not rely on rules, which may lead them to be more trusting (Courtiol et al, 2009).
Another social behavior that is influenced by birth order is dominance, which was examined in a study by Pollet (2010) and his colleagues. Firstborns tend to be less dominant in social situations because they tend to be more dominated by their parents. The strictness of firstborn parenting causes the child to become more submissive. Laterborns are more dominant because they are less dominated by their parents than firstborns. The more relaxed parenting of laterborns causes the child to become less submissive and more dominant (Pollet et al, 2010). It is evident that the effects of birth order stretch outside of the family unit and into the social environment. Once again, this offers even more support for the interpersonal communication ideas of parental contact and influence on children. The type of interactions the child receives from those closest to them impacts how they develop and function in their lives (Adler & Proctor, 2011).
Limitations and Future Research
While the mentioned studies draw many conclusions on the effects of birth order, there are gaps and limitations that make the results less valid. One of the most obvious flaws is that the majority of these studies focus mainly on firstborns. More conclusions are drawn about firstborns and many studies leave out laterborns altogether, which can lead to results that are biased towards firstborns. The factors that influence birth order acquired traits affect not only firstborns, but laterborns as well. Ignoring laterborns leads to gaps in research because it is difficult to draw appropriate conclusions when adequate information is not available. Another flaw in these studies is that the populations were limited. Some of the study populations were primarily students, which could have led to results that were not all-encompassing if only focusing on one university. Additionally, some students may not take the study seriously, especially if their participation is forced. On the other hand, some of the study populations were large and varied. It is more difficult to control family environment factors with a large and varied population. While the results of the studies are interesting and have validity, there are certainly gaps and areas of weaknesses in the methods.
The field of birth order studies could be improved through additional future studies. With more studies focusing on middle children, a medium ground between the traits of firstborns and lastborns could be shown. Additionally, there should be more studies focusing on only children. These studies may help show whether birth order traits are more influenced by parental interaction or by the presence of other siblings. With added studies on middle children and only children, a more all-encompassing picture of birth order traits will result. In addition to adding variety to the types of studies, it would be beneficial to have more controlled study populations. The studies should have some equalizing factors in the populations with equal numbers of participants from each birth order group and participants coming from similar family environments. Additionally, studies using university students should be more closely regulated. Only students who wish to voluntarily participate without credit should be used and methods that are difficult to control, such as online surveys, should be avoided. Overall, adding a wider range of birth order groups and narrowing the population variations could improve future studies.
In summary, the influence of birth order on personality is a popular topic of study that shows the importance of family member interactions. Birth order is linked to personality development, decision making, and social behavior. While the mentioned studies provide valuable information, there are some additional areas that need examined in the future. More studies need to be done that focus not just on firstborns and lastborns, but on middleborns and only children. Also, the studies would benefit from a more controlled study population. Overall, birth order is crucial to the development of an individual and influences their current and future traits and behaviors.
Adler, R.B. & Proctor, R.F. (2011). Looking Out/looking in (13th ed.) Australia:
Carette, B., Anseel, A., & Van Yperen N. (2011). Born to learn or born to win? Birth order effects on achievement goals. Journal of Research in Personality, 45(5), 500-503. doi:10.1016/ j.jrp.2011.06.008
Courtiol, A., Raymond, M., & Faurie, C. (2009). Birth order affects behavior in the investment game: firstborns are less trustful and reciprocate less. Animal Behaviour, 78(6), 1405-1411. doi:10.1016/j.anbehav.2009.09.016
Dixon, M.M., Reyes, C.J., Leppert, M.F., & Pappas, L.M. (2008). Personality and birth order in large families. Personality and Individual Differences,44(1), 119-128. doi: 10.1016/ j.paid.2007.07.015
Pollet, T.V., Dijkstra, P., Barelds, D.P.H., & Buunk, A.P. (2010). Birth order and the dominance aspect of extraversion: Are firstborns more extraverted, in the sense of being dominant, than laterborns?. Journal of Research in Personality, 44(6), 742-724. doi: /10.1016/j.jrp. 2010.10.002
Skinner, N.F. & Fox-Francoeur, C.A. (2010). Personality implications of adaption-innovation: v. birth order as a determinant of cognitive style. Social Behavior and Personality, 38(2), 237-240. doi: 10.2224/sbp.2010.38.2.237