To Learn More” Student Essays Personality Theories, Eighth Edition Engler

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To Learn More” Student Essays

Personality Theories, Eighth Edition - Engler

Chapter 4: Interpsychic Theories: Alfred Adler, Harry Stack Sullivan

Family Constellation/Birth Order

Alfred Adler theorized that an individual's personality will depend to some extent upon his or her position within the family in terms of sibling birth order. Specifically, he argued that oldest children tend to be more achievement oriented and traditional; second children tend to be competitive and ambitious but relatively unconcerned about power; last-born children tend to be more sociable and dependent; and only children tend to mature relatively early but can remain dependent for a relatively long time. Recent research on birth order suggests that the likelihood that a marriage will last can be predicted somewhat by the complementariness of the birth order of the partners. For example, a last-born boy may be a good marital match for a first-born girl, or a last-born girl may be a good marital match for a first-born boy.

Along those lines, it is interesting to speculate about how other relationships might be influenced by the compatibility of the birth orders of the people involved. For example, to what extent might workplace relationships, such as employer-employee relationship or employee-employee, be enhanced if the individuals involved were of complementary birth order status? Would similar expectations exist for teacher-student relationships, or friendships?

Although the sibling order is certainly an important factor, the spacing between the siblings (years between births) can also play an important yet overlooked role. A family with two children, for example, may produce very different birth order effects if the children are born 15 years apart as opposed to 15 months apart. In the former scenario, each sibling's experience may best approximate that of an only child; in the latter, the proximity in age may result in more competition or peer-like relationships.

Adler spent little time addressing family constellation or birth order effects in blended families, probably because they were relatively uncommon in his time and place. They are much more common now, however, and when families blend, unique birth order effects may take place. For example, consider two only children whose single parents marry. Immediately, both children take on very different roles, one as oldest sibling and the other as youngest sibling. To what extent will their revised status in the family constellation influence their personalities? To what extent does the age of the children at the time of the blending influence the likelihood that their personalities will be affected?

Cultural variables, such as ethnicity and gender, can also interact significantly with birth order effects. In some cultures, the expectations for children who hold a particular position within the family are quite explicit and quite different from the expectations another family of different cultural background might hold. For example, in some Asian families, the expectations of the first-born male in terms of achievement and loyalty and leadership within the family are different than they might be for a later-born son or a first-born daughter. Although such cultural effects vary widely within any cultural group and may change over time, they are important considerations in relation to birth order.

Andrew M. Pomerantz, Ph. D.
Southern Illinois University Edwardsville

Critical Thinking Questions:

  1. What unique birth order effects might be found in blended families? In terms of birth order effects, what unique challenges and opportunities might exist for children in blended families?

  2. How might cultural variables (such as ethnicity or gender) influence birth order effects on personality? Can you offer an example involving a particular cultural group?

  3. If you were an employer, would you consider birth order as criteria for hiring new employees or assigning employees to work together in groups? If you ran a matchmaking or dating service? Why or why not?

Web Links:
Detailed listing of personality characteristics of many birth order positions. Includes not only common positions such as first, last, middle, and only child, but also less commonly discussed positions such as "only boy among girls," "only girl among boys," and "ghost child."
An interesting section of a website designed primarily to help individuals research family ancestry. Includes discussion of the interaction of birth order and family history.
A quiz in which students attempt to guess the birth order of celebrities according to their personality traits.

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