October 13, 2019

Birth Order May Not Mean Much

“Birth order, according to conventional wisdom, molds personality: Firstborn children, secure with their place in the family and expected to be the mature ones, grow up to be intellectual, responsible and conformist. Younger siblings work harder to get their parents’ attention, take more risks and become creative rebels.

That’s the central idea in psychologist Frank J. Sulloway’s “Born to Rebel,” an influential book on birth order that burst, like a water balloon lobbed by an attention-seeking third-born, onto the pop psychology scene two decades ago. Sulloway’s account of the nuclear family claimed that firstborn children command their parents’ attention and resources, so later-borns must struggle to carve out their niche. Sibling behaviors then crystallize into adult personalities.

“I thought — and I still think — it’s very plausible and intuitive,” said Ralph Hertwig, a psychologist at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin, who published a study on unequal parental investment with Sulloway in 2002.”

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