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How Birth Order Affects Personality Traits

Updated on October 16, 2011

Birth order is the timing of a child's birth within the family structure. Recent studies suggest that birth order should be cited among such factors as gender, age span between siblings, parenting styles, cultural practices, and genetic makeup that affect an individual's personality traits and behavioral patterns.

Early Theories Rooted in Anecdotal Wisdom

Austrian psychologist Alfred Adler (1870-1937) was probably the first scientist to bring the dynamics of family structure under scrutiny. He suggested that oldest borns tend to suffer from a degree of neuroticism arising after the birth of the second child, which takes attention away from the first. Later borns are overindulged, while middle borns tend to develop successfully. Unfortunately, Adler failed to produce long-term scientific research data to support his hypothesis, which was primarily based on anecdotal wisdom rather than on actual evidence.

This traditional wisdom had placed the emphasis on stereotypical negative personality traits with regard to sibling order, portraying the first born as bossy, the middle as neglected, the youngest as spoiled, while the only child was supposed to become selfish and egotistic. However, comprehensive research based on long-term data disclosed a more complex cause-and-effect correlation between birth order and a wide spectrum of social factors, including personality type, career choice, success in relationships, and openness to new experience.


On the correlation between birth order and career choices

Are only children higher achievers?

With regard to success in certain career fields, particularly those that require making decisions quickly and under pressure, studies have shown that older born and only children had a higher potential for leadership and achievement and possessed a higher need for approval.

Prominent media figures are often firstborns or only children. Over 50% of American presidents have been first- or older borns and 21 of NASA’s 23 first astronauts to fly into space were either the oldest or only children. Also, all of the original Mercury astronauts were firstborns. Above average scores on verbal performance have also been detected among firstborns and only children.

On birth order and relationships

Are older borns incompatible in marriage?

With regard to success in marriage, friendship and gender roles, psychologist Walter Toman have shown a significant influence of birth order with emphasis on the variables of the sex of the siblings and birth spacing. More specificely, studies led by Toman disclosed that marriages tended to be most succeed between the older brother of a sister and the younger sister of a brother and vica versa.

Toman called these complementary sibling roles, which formed the basis for similar roles in a marriage. On the other hand, individuals who married a counterpart were likely to get divorced, exactly because the partners would contend to play similar roles rather than complement each other. Marriage and family counseling employs many of Toman's findings in practice today.

On birth order and receptiveness to new ideas

Are younger siblings are more open-minded?

The correlation between birth order and openness to new ideas and experience was studied by Frank Sulloway. He used contemporary and historical data and factored in other influences such as sex, social class, family size, race, and age. According to his findings, later borns have a tendency to support causes that challenge the status quo.

There are plenty examples of this, ranging from the Protestant Reformation to the American abolitionist movement. Sulloway used the examples of Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Fidel Castro, Ho Chi Minh, etc as such later borns. Firstborns, on the other side, have a natural tendency to defend traditional values, according to his findings.

Are older borns really better?

Does the fact that older borns and only children tend to be high achievers mean that younger siblings are less successful? Sociologist Howard M. Bahr studied New York City adult men in rehabilitation centers who were not taking responsibility for their lives.

The results showed that birth order did not seem to play a significant role, except in the case of only children, who were overrepresented. Bahr concluded that high parental expectations might in some cases cause a breakdown in a person due to the unreasonable pressures sometimes placed on only children.


Birthrate cycles and the impact on society

Historical birthrate cycles heavily affect the family structure as well as birth order patterns, which in turn impacts the whole of society. Industrialized nations tend to produce smaller and smaller families in large numbers. The increase in the number of only children and the decrease in the number of middle children is possibly creating what some experts termed a society of leaders and followers with fewer middle children to bridge the gap between them.

Further reading

For better insight, please, visit this article on the subject of birth order in the family written by a mother of three who shares her first-hand experience with her daughters and how birth order affected their personalities.


In summary, the findings of recent studies generally describe firstborns as responsible, achievement oriented, and supporters of tradition and status quo; middle borns as flexible, competitive, and diplomatic; later borns as outgoing, inventive, and likely to question authority; and only children as often showing augmented traits of both the older and later borns.

The timing of a child’s birth seems to be one of several important factors to consider in personality analysis. Birth order is likely to have considerable effect on how individuals view themselves and how they respond to those around them. As a direct consequence, family size and the resulting personality traits attributed to birth order are likely to affect society as a whole.


Sulloway, Frank. (1996). Born to rebel: Birth order, family dynamics, and creative lives. New York: Pantheon.
Toman, Walter. (1976). Family constellation: Its effects on personality and social behavior. New York: Springer.
Leman, Kevin. (1984). The new birth order book: Why you are the way you are. Old Tappan, NJ: Revell.


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    • Sphinxs Sanctum profile image

      Sphinxs Sanctum 

      7 years ago from Southern United States

      Quite the interesting hub, old Friend. Great Choice in topic! Not sure where I'd fit in the birth order being raised by grandparents & the youngest in the household with two uncles in the place of older brothers 11 & 14 yrs my senior. May have to do some extra studying. :)

      I'm happy to see you're still here & still writing as such a gift should Never be wasted. I'm back for a time to wade through the latest emotional-sludge. Who knows for how long?

      (Have a look just beneath - On birth order and receptiveness to new ideas- you'll see it!)

    • Windward Mark profile image

      Windward Mark 

      8 years ago

      Haunty, I think you've provided readers with a nice overview of the birth-order pattern.

      We should also remember, however, that birth order determines the new child's open or available niches in the family system or ecosystem.

      The controlling influence in all such systems is the local environment to which any child is predominantly exposed. Of course, the child's native abilities enable her or him to fit into some family "niches" or roles easier than others.

      The firstborn enters an environment that is well established by the parents (usually), and it is to those associated standards that the child tends to aspire to and develop toward (adult interests, vocabularies and so on).

      Child number two necessarily enters a less structured environment and is generally more free to just cruise along enjoying life, taking things as they come, being easy going.

      With child number three's arrival, family focus leaves number two and fastens on the bright new baby (a phenomenon which is not lost on either the new baby or number two child). Thus, number two's development is largely overlooked as long as he or she doesn't make waves.

      Think next of what might happen with a number two child raised by a single mom. With less paternal influence, he or she is much more likely to chart her own course, whereas number one would tend to recreate the stable pattern that seemingly would exist in two-parent families (but may not).

      The upshot is that number two can get really good at navigating uncharted waters, all the while inventing her- himself accordingly. A longitudinal study along those lines would likely prove interesting.

    • tammyswallow profile image


      8 years ago from North Carolina

      Still a great hub! Well researched.

    • TheSenior profile image


      8 years ago

      I also am an only child. You either come out aggressive or passive. You become very confident of yourself throught life for your parents take you everywhewhere and you meet older people at a young age. If you also are blessed with a strong personality - you may suffer throu life for others cain't handle you. When you are in your teens you are miles ahead of your peers for they are just getting to the spot where you have already come form. Great Hub.

    • editorsupremo profile image


      8 years ago from London, England

      Interesting hub. As the youngest child I was thoroughly spoilt!

    • MsDora profile image

      Dora Weithers 

      8 years ago from The Caribbean

      Haunty, thanks for this information. It's good to know why we do some of the things that we do. Such information helps us understand ourselves a little better.

    • creativelycc profile image

      Carrie L Cronkite 

      8 years ago from Maine

      Hello Haunty,very interesting. When comparing my children to what is studied here, I have to say I agree with the studies. My oldest child has been in the military since he graduated high school back in 1998 and is a specialist in his field. My youngest is very free spirited and has not made up his mind what he wants to do in life yet. My middle child has graduated from college and has excellent work ethics. Excellent hub,I enjoyed reading it. Thank you!

    • ThoughtSandwiches profile image


      8 years ago from Reno, Nevada


      I like how this goes so far beyond the typical discussion of birth orders that I have typically heard. I am the youngest of three and my two older sisters were fanatics on the subject.

      My concern with this information is in the "Birth Order/Relationship category. I got confused and when I tried to figure it became like a math problem. the YOUNGER brother of an OLDER sister does that rule me out of the relationship game?

      As both my parents have long since shed those mortal coils and all...I don't see them coming back and giving me a baby sister that will transform me into a worthy spouse.



    • profile image


      8 years ago

      Great hub enjoyed reading it. Look forward to reading more of your hubs.

    • tammyswallow profile image


      8 years ago from North Carolina

      Great descriptions and from what I have read.. very accurate. I am the classic first born. My 2 younger brothers got away with everything. :) Well researched and presented.

    • cebutouristspot profile image


      8 years ago from Cebu

      This is an interesting information that you have publish. I still think the environment is the greatest influence in personality :)

    • GoodLady profile image

      Penelope Hart 

      8 years ago from Rome, Italy

      What a fascinating Hub.

      I've always wondered about birth order and traits because we were seven children in our family and I was the first and always actually FELT like the leader.

      My youngest and favorite sister is a rebellious thinker. The thoughts I always had regarding the 'order' we were all in were regarding the middle sisters. One of them (4th born) was very jealous because she wasn't the first.

      Your findings are interesting.

      Thanks. Voted up and interesting.

    • Sunshine625 profile image

      Linda Bilyeu 

      8 years ago from Orlando, FL

      I'm a middle child. The one who tended to be forgotten. Left at rest stops while on road trips. Haha! Joke! I turned out kind of normal!:)

      ~~~~~~ HAPPY BIRTHDAY 02/04 ~~~~~~~

    • Millionaire Tips profile image

      Shasta Matova 

      8 years ago from USA

      This is great information here Haunty. I think it explains some things about why people act the way they do. I have shared this hub with my followers.

    • Alecia Murphy profile image

      Alecia Murphy 

      9 years ago from Wilmington, North Carolina

      I'm an only child and I have noticed how many celebs and prominent figures are only children or the oldest. That's a very interesting concept. I also see how it's interesting that birth order affects relational compatibility. Very interesting hub!

    • Haunty profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago from Hungary

      It does. I say good for those who can embrace the way they are and be happy about it, because no matter what people say about the purpose of life it all comes down to being a struggle if you have to fight your surroundings all the time.

    • Ardie profile image


      9 years ago from Neverland

      We should embrace who we are. Some people prefer sticking with the mold and are happy there. Good for them. Others prefer to break the mold and act differently, so they should work on being who they want to be rather than who the family tries to shape them to be. I hope that makes sense.

    • Haunty profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago from Hungary

      Hi Ardie! :) There are so many things that shape our personalities. The question is should we give in to them or should we work on ourselves to be more like what we want to be. I really don't know.

    • Ardie profile image


      9 years ago from Neverland

      I enjoyed reading this. In my experience most people do act in the stereotypical way of their birth order. I am very much the baby of the family and my oldest brother is the most responsible and mature. With my three kids I noticed the traits you mentioned also. I love reading about birth order and how it shapes an individual's personality - and somewhat his or her future. Thanks for a great read!

    • Haunty profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago from Hungary

      Thanks Dabney. I've just discovered that this is by no means a unique subject on HubPages. Which I thought it was. Wondering if I should unpublish it...

    • dabneylewis profile image


      9 years ago from Boston

      Great Hub!!!

      I've read this subject earlier also but this one is best among them.

    • Haunty profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago from Hungary

      Thanks Deb. I think this is a great subject, because everyone can relate in some way and decide if it's true for them or not. As an older brother, I realize my propensity for narcissism.

    • Deborah Demander profile image

      Deborah Demander Reno 

      9 years ago from First Wyoming, then THE WORLD

      Interesting hub. As the oldest, I realize my propensity for bossiness and leadership. And my baby brother's need for attention.

      Well written and researched.


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