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Running Head: BIRTH ORDER

Birth Order and Personality

Amy Rohlfer, Andreea Dumea, Kari Kirk, Briana Bracken, Michael Stirewalt

April 26, 2011

California State University, Fresno

Birth Order and Personality

It is well known that a person’s personality is made up of patterns of thought, emotion, and behavior combined with the psychological mechanisms behind them. One more specific aspect of personality that has recently received much interest is the effect birth order has on the development of personality. A person’s birth order refers to the rank s/he possess in the family in relation to their siblings; whether someone is a first born, a middle child, or the youngest. Many people believe that birth order affects a person’s personality development and buy into certain stereotypes such as the first-born is the “golden child” or that middle children have “middle child syndrome” and the youngest child is “the favorite” or is “spoiled”.

Although it is generally accepted by the public that a person’s birth order affects both personality and life outcomes, the effect birth order has on personality has been widely debated by psychologists for years. The differing views on birth order and personality tend to clash and range from the standpoint that it has a profound effect on the development of a person’s personality, family interaction, and personal achievement, to the effect being miniscule and laughable. Proponents for birth order’s effects on personality believe that birth order gives a good general idea of a person’s personality and that these characterizations can be used to predict future achievement. Opponents believe that there are too many other variables included in the formation of personality to say that birth order has a significant effect in its development and that most people believe in birth order effects because they are looking for something that is not necessarily there (Harris, 2002). Even though the theory that birth order influences a person’s personality has been highly scrutinized and called stereotypical, there is still research showing that there may be significant reason to believe that family rank does in fact affect personality. Accordingly, this chapter of the wiki will discuss in depth the various studies that support birth order effects on personality.

First Born Child

One rank within the family system is the first born child. According to research, first born children have specific personality traits that are indicative of their rank within the family. First-born children tend to be more aggressive, which makes them want things their way (Neal, 2002). Because they are the eldest in the family they are natural born leaders; which shows they are extremely driven. According to CBS? children who are born first are normally perfectionists and tend to be reliable. First borns like to please others, may exhibit a need to gain approval from those in charge, and are extremely conscientious (Neal, 2002).

In a study by MacDonald (1971), it was found that there are considerable differences between firstborn children in comparison to children born later. According to the study, firstborns are more introverted and are more likely to become anxious faster (MacDonald, 1971). They also have a larger need for approval from others but tend to have lower self-esteem in comparison to children who are not born first. Firstborns may also be more susceptible to fear of physical pain (MacDonald, 1971).

Due to the fact that only one child can be a parent’s first born, first born children hold a very specific place within the family. Parents normally give the most attention to their first children being the reason for some of the personality traits they obtain (Sulloway, 1996). First-born children are strongly correlated with the personality traits of being ambitious and scholarly (Sulloway, 1996). These children also tend to be easy to cooperate with and therefore work well in teams (Murphy, 2005). According to Murphy, first born children are likely to be nurturers and caregivers. This is because they often end up taking care of younger siblings. She also states that there are two types of first born, the aggressive and the compliant type. The traits mentioned above are a mingling of both types of first-born children (Murphy, 2005).

 It has been suggested that some firstborns are more clingy, withdrawn, and tearful; which is partly believed to be caused by mothers who spend more time with their first children and obsess over them more than they do their subsequent children (Dunn, 1981). A lot of personality differences in firstborn children and later born children are not necessarily due to birth order directly, but to the indirect effect birth order has on parenting styles (Dunn, 1981).

Birth order also seems to have an interesting effect on how people act within group settings. A large group study which compared first born children to later born children suggested that people who held the first born position within the family were more likely to conform to the group and have less self-confidence in this setting (Smith, 1963). Oddly enough, firstborns ended up being the leader in work groups and better problem solvers (Smith, 1963).

Interestingly, birth order also seems to have an effect on a person’s personal achievement. In many studies researchers have found that the first-born children show higher levels of achievement than their younger siblings. However, even though studies show that scholastic achievement is higher in first-born children, some of the studies prove that the increased personal achievement is due to parental encouragement (LeMay, 1970). Even though there is only a slight significance to support this, some studies show that there are more first-born children who graduate college in four years that children who are not born first, and the numbers only increase for graduating in five years (LeMay, 1970).

Another study shows that children who are the first-born in their family have higher achievement than others in general. However, there seemed to be a small catch in this study because results correlated with mothers’ encouragement and expectation. The more a mother expected her first-born child to have higher achievement scores than her other children, the better performance the first born child exhibited (Rothbart, 1971). This shows that when we expect a child to succeed we tend to encourage them more and therefore the child will succeed.

Other studies on birth order’s effects on achievement supported the idea that performance scores of the first-born were superior to those children not born first (Lunneborg, 1971). The result of these studies has created a pattern which shows that first born children tend to have higher achievement scores in relation to those who are born into the family later. The association of a first born child achieving more than those not born first can have several effects on all children. It can boost confidence and positively affect the personality and lives of children born first but on the contrary it can negatively affect children who are not born first, giving them the idea that they are not as good as their older siblings.

Middle Child

According to Alfred Adler, who was one of the first to suggest that birth order played a role in the basic development of personality, a person could be characterized in certain ways according to what rank he or she held in their family. Much research on the effects of birth order has stemmed from his original theories, some of which have found support, and some of which have been found to be nonsignificant.

It was Adler’s belief that middle children may feel cheated due to the fact that the firstborn child and the newest child may be getting more of the parent’s attention than they are (Birth Order and Children’s Personality, n.d). He also suggested that while the middle child of the family might be more social and outgoing, they would probably feel the need to compete with their older sibling, and work extra hard to be successful in their careers because of this. Although sibling rivalry did have an effect on the middle child’s personality, he still believed that the middle child would eventually become the peacemaker of the family, putting rest to arguments between the oldest and youngest siblings. Adler, a middle child himself, also believed that middle children had the highest chances of becoming well- adjusted, and successful adults, due to the fact that they never experience dethronement like a first born child, or the overindulgence that a youngest child might experience (Birth Order and Children’s Personality, n.d). Although Adler believed these things to be true about middle born children, he did not believe that these characteristics were set in stone. Instead, he believed that they created a general guideline that when combined with other factors, such as family environment, developed a person’s personality more fully.

A contemporary of Adler’s, Dr. Kevin Leman, popularized Adler’s ideas in The Birth Order Book, Why You Are the Way You Are. Leman supported the idea that middle children tend to feel more isolated than oldest or youngest children in the family and added to the theory that they may become impatient, get frustrated easily, or become the family rebel later in life (Leman, 1998, 2006). Leman cited a positive attribute of a middle child’s personality which was that they are loyal in relationships. This could possibly be due to the fact that they never felt that they had a specific niche within their own family, which makes them work harder at building their own relationships. He believed them to be very trustworthy marriage partners and good parents. Dr. Leman expanded upon Adler’s theory by saying that second born children in general are usually the opposite of whatever the child ranking above them in the family is. Because of this, he believed that middle children were usually less driven than their older siblings, who are usually characterized as being high achievers. Another part of Lehman’s theory of birth order was that middle children might suffer from “middle child syndrome”, in which they feel deprived of both the parental attention shown to the eldest and the over indulgence shown to the youngest (Leman, 1998, 2006).

Another supporter of the effects of birth order on personality is Frank Sulloway. In his controversial book, Born to Rebel, he proposed that birth rank had significant effects on the Big Five personality traits of Conscientiousness, Openness, Extroversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism. Sulloway believed that due to the rank a person held within his or her family, personality traits would be different. Of later born children, Sulloway believed that they showed more openness to new ideas, including those that might lead them to question family values or elders, and were less conscientious, most likely because of the fact that they never had to be in the role of babysitter for another child (Sulloway, 1996). He went on to say they are less socially dominant, and more agreeable, which might stem from the fact that they were lower on the totem pole than their older siblings, and acquire more adaptive strategies than their older siblings do (Sulloway, 1996). According to Sulloway, the middle child’s increased negotiating skills come from being sandwiched in the middle of the youngest and oldest child, creating a higher need for diplomacy. He goes on to say that compared to older children, middle children tend to favor compromise and create stronger bonds with sibling than with their parents. Sulloway also believed that later born children were more extroverted than first born children in terms of excitement seeking and sociability. Lastly he believed that later born children had higher levels of self-consciousness compared to their older siblings, which probably stemmed from years of comparing themselves with their more accomplished older siblings (Sulloway, 1996).

Sulloway’s theories were supported by research done by Del Paulhus and his research team, who found that there was consistent evidence for birth order effects in self-reports in samples of both students and adults. Paulhus’ research showed that later born children had higher scores on openness, agreeableness, and rebelliousness in comparison to first born children. They did admit though that the effect is most obvious within families, and that the results are greatly minimized when comparing people in different families. (Paulhaus, Trapnell, & Chen, 1998)

While eldest children are characterized as being the highest achievers, it is generally accepted that later-born children may exhibit higher achievement levels than their younger siblings. A study by Belmont and Marolla (1973) suggested that there was actually a gradient of declining achievement with rising birth order, meaning that while first-borns scored higher than second-born children; second-born children would score higher than their subsequent siblings.

Youngest Child

Youngest children embody a very particular niche within the family system. Often times, mothers direct their attention more towards the younger siblings than the older siblings (Stocker, 1989). According to Paulhus (1999), first born children endeavor to please their parents via responsible behavior like succeeding in school, while later born children have to find a way to distinguish themselves from their older siblings and the higher status that they have created (Paulhus, 1999). Paulhus went on to explain that, later-born children develop empathic relationships, they struggle to be unique, and in short they are “born to rebel” (482). Pawlik-Kienlen (2007) acknowledges that, youngest children tend to be more adventurous, funnier, and more agreeable than their older brothers and sisters. They are also more likely to participate in riskier sports and are often characterized as being ‘loose cannons’ (Pawlik-Kienlen, 2007). Younger children are shown to have varying levels of the Big Five Personality Traits in comparison to their older siblings. For example youngest children tend to have higher levels of agreeableness which enables them to get along better with other people. Youngest children are also characterized as being more open to new experiences and more rebellious than their older siblings. Part of the rebellious nature found in youngest children could be because older siblings expose them to particular behaviors that they engage in at a young age (Hartshorne, 2009).

While being a youngest child can be beneficial, it can also be detrimental to a person’s personality development. While youngest children tend to be more outgoing, they are usually the least disciplined by parents. This could possibly be due to the fact that parents are worn down by the time the last child comes along (Lamme, 2009). Youngest children are often times distinguished as being spoiled and manipulative, with a propensity for acquiring everything they yearn for (Lamme, 2009). They end up doing everything they can in order to attain attention from others.

Being the youngest in the family system can also lead to conflict and tension between siblings. It has been found that in younger years the older sibling had more authority over the younger sibling and as they age they become equals (Cicirelli, 1995). Volkom (2011) describes how relationships involving sisters are very important during older years of life for the fact that women are habitually nurturing and emotional (Spitze & Trent, 2006). In later years, siblings rely on each other during times of stress or need. Siblings become closer in later years for the fact that when they were younger they went through the same life-changing events such as a parent dying (Khodyakov & Carr, 2009). Throughout various stages of life, siblings go through different obstacles that make the sibling bond stronger (Volkom, 2011). Together, siblings go through changes in relationships and these relationships evolve over time which makes them develop unique relationships.

Volkom (2011) acknowledges that, Sibling relationships are thought to be the most consistent and supportive relationships that a human being has throughout life (Myers & Bryant, 2008). According to Volkom (2011), it was predicted that “youngest and middle children would report experiencing more comparisons to the sibling than oldest children”. Volkom found that older siblings have more power in the relationship (Recchia, Ross, & Vickar, 2010). Older siblings are often given the position of power and they are very much devoted to relationships with all the siblings. When it comes to younger siblings, they are fighting to develop their own identity and they compare themselves to the closest-age sibling rather than the oldest sibling (Volkom, 2011). Younger siblings are jealous of the oldest siblings and so they seek attention from others (Volkom, 2011).

Only Child Section

While firstborns have been shown to be more conscientious, ambitious, academically oriented, conforming, conservative, and inclined toward leadership, than their later-born siblings, children born later in birth order tend to be more unconventional, flexible, and rebellious (Sulloway, 1997). So what becomes of the only child? Being the first as well as the last born, has given the only child a stigmatized reputation. Only children tend to exhibit traits more similar to those of other firstborn children. However, only children seem to have better self-esteem, are more independent, and are higher achievers than children who have siblings (Brophy, 1989). When asked to describe personality characteristics of an only child, many people will respond negatively, indicating the popular assumption that only children are spoiled and bratty when in reality only children have shown to be highly motivated and achieve the goals or high standards they set for themselves more often than children with siblings (Dunkle, 2009). Because only children lack siblings, they lose the immediate availability of others near their own age with whom to interact socially. In order to develop normal social skills, only children must be exposed to other children of the same age through other means that family life do not automatically provide. Examples of social techniques could include public education as well as play dates with children close in age (Leman, 1998).

Because only children have a greater variation of personality types, logic would dictate that introversion and extraversion are equally likely traits in only children. The psychologist Eysenck (Weiten, 1998), who largely endorsed the role of genetics in determining personality, also performed research in the areas of extraversion and introversion. He suggested that introverts tend to have higher levels of arousal than extroverts (Weiten, 1998). He found that introverts were more easily conditioned than extraverts and, because social situations cause arousal, the heightening of arousal caused introverts to feel uneasy and avoid social interaction. This provided reasoning behind why they become introverted (Weiten, 1998).

According to Skinner's behaviorist theory of operant conditioning, only children would undergo conditioning to affect their behavior in social situations. Operant conditioning involves the conditioning of behavior according to the consequences of the action or behavior that it produces (Neal, 2002). This meant that only children would be conditioned to behave in an outgoing manner in order to win friends, because they had no guaranteed familial playmates (Neal, 2002). Only children may have a tendency to have difficulty assimilating into large groups, and when they do join a group they tend to dominate (Brophy, 1989). This type of conditioning would take place regardless of a child's natural inclinations toward extraversion or introversion if the child wishes to make friends. Jung was the first psychologist to describe the inner and outer directed types of personality. Inner directed people, also known as introverts, tend to be concerned with the internal world of their thoughts and feelings. Outer directed people, or extraverts, tend to be interested in the external world of things and people (Leman, 1998).

Because only children do not have siblings with whom to interact, they learn to be children on their own. Parents and play groups can help, but ultimately children become conditioned to depend on themselves. Says one adult only child, "Possibly the best part was developing the ability to enjoy being alone and to entertain myself. I've always had plenty of friends, yet people are surprised by how much of a loner I can be" (Leman, 1998). Although this self-sufficiency can have its benefits, it can also mean that only children are inherently alone as their personalities develop. This might mean that no matter how much social interaction is developed throughout their lifetime, only children are still on their own for much of their lives. Regular family interaction will always be isolated without any siblings.

Because only children must develop in social situations that may not be best suited to their personalities, the concepts of introversion and extraversion must be re-evaluated in the consideration of only children. Ultimately, an only child's environment forces him or her to take on both characteristics of introversion and extraversion despite natural inclinations to be one or the other. A naturally introverted child must show extraverted qualities if he or she wishes to make friends, where a naturally extraverted child must learn to show introverted qualities by being content to focus on his or her own thoughts when playmates are unavailable. This dilemma of the only child could be reason behind why they are considered to be more independent than children with siblings (Hartshorne, 2009).

Of course, very few humans are strictly extraverted or introverted; most fall somewhere in between the two. The term "ambivert" has been coined to describe those persons who show both characteristics. This term may be what is considered appropriate to describe only children. However, to call an only child introverted, extraverted or ambiverted would imply that the child developed into its natural tendency toward that certain personality type with little influence from its environment. Thus only children are caught in a dilemma. Although environmental influence is not the sole influence in personality development, only children must develop their personalities in unique environmental situations. Their environments force them to act against their natural tendencies of socialization in order to function normally. Therefore only children must at times be acting in ways against their natural tendencies. Perhaps this struggle helps explain some of the common characteristics that emerge among only children, such as the tendency to not participate in many activities but leading the ones in which they do participate or learning to be comfortable being independent and alone.

Perhaps because the emotional difficulties that only children are prone to have such as excessive sensitivity, hypochondria, or trouble expressing anger (Brophy, 1989) are results of environmental influence but not in the way most commonly assumed. Rather than solely the effects of sibling-free socialization, these emotional difficulties could be attributed to an almost Freudian struggle between opposing forces: the natural tendency toward extraversion or introversion versus the environmental pressures to subdue those tendencies in order to function (Hartshorne, 2009).


A study by Roberts, Wood and Smith (2005), supported the idea that personality changes occur partly as a consequence of interactions with and efforts to adapt to the social environment. With twins, genetic factors tended to influence trait levels overall, but the non-shared environment is also an important influence on changes in trait levels over time. Even though twins have similar personality traits due to genetics, however experiences that were unique to each individual twin also influenced their personality. Basically, the environment added in to the individual twin’s personality making a separate trait. Moreover, increasing the level of connection for an individual twin between non-shared environmental influences and their own personality traits make the traits more stable within their personality.

As twins grow older and become adults their personalities are more “stability-promoting” with environments that correlate with their own traits. “It may be the case that the selection into adult roles and relationships enhances personality stability” (Roberts & Wood, 2006). Being a twin comes with the understanding that you will always have a very similar sibling, with similar personality traits. However, described by Arnett (2000), the transition to adulthood is a process of both exploration and identity consolidation. Though each twin share similarities to their opposite, they will however be influenced by the environment and have individual traits in a personality trait sense.

According to Ganiban, Ulbricht, Spotts, Lichtenstein, Reiss, Hansson, and Neiderhiser twins personality characteristics were correlated with marital quality and the emotional qualities of the parent–child relationship. Moreover, analyses from the study showed that twins’ who reported that satisfying and supportive marriages also tend to have relationships with their children that are affectionate and supportive. However, when twins’ find their marriages less supportive and more criticism, they are more punitive and permissive with their children. Interesting enough, twins’ that had anxiety and aggression were associated with decreasing martial satisfaction. Basically the twins’ anxiety and aggression were inversely related to martial satisfaction. “When analyses were based on the twins’ appraisals of their marriage and parenting composites that included child and twin reports of parenting, personality explained about half (50% to 57%) of the genetic contributions to covariance. When observational measures were used, the twins’ personality characteristics accounted for most, (60% to 91%), of the genetic contributions to covariance between marital quality and the parent–child relationship” (Ganiban, Ulbricht, Spotts, Lichtenstein, Reiss, Hansson, and Neiderhiser).

Also studied by Horwitz, Ganiban, Spotts, Lichtenstein, Reiss, and Neiderhiser was their study of aggressive personality and family relationships in explaining family conflict. Understanding their study, they investigated whether genetic and environmental influences on global family conflict are explained by parents' aggressive personality, marital quality, and negative parenting. Their findings concluded that a genetic factor contributed to the twins’ aggressive personality and negative parenting explained more than half of the genetic variance in family conflict. Furthermore, studies that have been primarily based upon the TOSS data set have indicated that a twin's heritable characteristics influence his or her marital quality and parenting behaviors (Ganiban et al., 2007, 2009; Neiderhiser et al., 2004; Spotts et al., 2004). Coie and Dodge found that a twin's heritable aggressive personality could cause him or her to be more hostile towards and more readily construe hostility from the spouse and child. Research has shown that twins' marriages to different spouses explain non-shared environmental contributions to marital quality (Spotts et al., 2005).

A good study showing evidence on twins’ learning and achievement is the Teacher effects in early literacy development, by Byrne, Coventry, Olson, Wadsworth, Samuelsson, Petrill, and Corley. Date? They assessed the contribution of the classroom to variance in early word and non-word reading, reading comprehension, and spelling by comparing the intra-class correlations for monozygotic and dizygotic twin children assigned to the same or different classrooms. How is this related to personality?? Interestingly, two monozygotic twins who move from a shared classroom to separate ones from one year to the next do not diverge more in growth than two who remain in the same classroom.

Birth Order Controversy

While there is research that supports birth order’s effect on the development of a person’s personality, there are many people who disagree with the research. One such person is Judith Rich Harris. In her essay, “Why do People Believe Birth Order has Important Effects on Personality?”, Harris cites numerous reasons why people cling to the belief that birth order has an effect on personality including, flawed or misleading research, people’s subjective impressions based on their own experiences, and the tendency for research to only be published if it supports birth order beliefs (Harris, 2002).

While Harris acknowledges that birth order effects do exist within family units, she believes that these effects are not as noticeable when observing someone away from his or her family; parents and siblings. Context is an important factor when assessing personality and Harris argues that people tend to assume that certain aspects of personality are enduring traits when in fact they are context specific (Harris, 2002).

Harris also discussed how much of the current research in birth order and personality fail to control for extraneous variables such as family size and socioeconomic status. These two factors tend to effect personality because parenting style and parental education levels are often different when compared to smaller family with high socioeconomic status (Harris, 2002).


There are numerous factors that interact to develop a person’s personality, and while the study of birth order’s effects on personality development are still relatively new, there is evidence that a person’s rank within the family is a legitimate way to characterize his or her personality. While this assertion has been widely debated by many researchers, the way birth order effects personality remains present in personality psychology. According to Lamme (2009), birth order is useful to shape everyone? and how one views the world and relationships with others, however, “Birth order does not mean destiny” [cite needed]. If this is true, by learning more about how a person’s birth order contributes to their personality, future achievement, and family interaction, we can infer what traits a person might have from birth that could be either beneficial or detrimental to their futures. Knowing these things so early in life could also help parents adjust their parenting styles in order to benefit their children as much as possible. Even though birth order may lend useful insight into what a person’s personality traits might be like in the future, it is important to keep in mind that other contributing factors will effect personality development, such as family environment and number of siblings, and that birth order is just a small piece of the personality puzzle.


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Some studies say that is does, partially because how parents are with their first child compared to their last child. I believe mother are extremely more uptight and cautious with their firstborn rather than with their third child

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