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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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