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Birth Order and Personality Traits - Truth or Nonsense?

By John R. Morella, Ph.D.

Quite often in psychotherapy sessions, parents when speaking about their children, would remark, "He is an only child, spoiled and self-centered, or "She is a middle child, sort of lost in the shuffle, and sees life as unfair," or "He is the youngest, and I guess we all 'baby him' and he gets by with a lot of immature behavior," or "She is our first-born, and I think is unforgiving of the kids who came after her and likes to boss her younger siblings. Yet, she is the most responsible of the lot."

Children and teens would share with me that they believed birth-order-position is important and further believed their parents placed certain roles on them simply on the rank order of their birth.

Are these parents and children wrong and are they perpetuating a false premise that birth order has an impact on many personality traits in child development?

Psychiatrist Alfred Adler (1870-1937) was possibly the first theorist to explore birth order and its relationship to personality. He believed that birth order strongly influenced an individual throughout his life, affecting issues of socialization, love choices, and work. Subsequent research questions the validity of his hypotheses. In one mega study (evaluating large numbers of research studies), Ernst and Young (1983) reviewed all published studies between 1948 and 1980, and concluded there were no real relationships of birth order to personality traits, and that the focus of this research was a "waste of time." Jefferson, Herbst and McCrae (1998) found no correlation between birth order to the personality traits of extraversion, neuroticism, agreeableness, conscientiousness and openness to experiences. Lastly, in a study by Guastello and others, they found no significant effects of birth order to emotional stability, responsibility, sociability and self-esteem.

Yet, the perception continues to exist that birth order plays a role in personality development. When I surveyed high school students in 2009, on this issue, six out of ten students believed birth order impacted upon them in some way. There were no gender differences as both males and females were equally in agreement. The remaining 40 percent were evenly divided between having "no impact" and "not sure."

There are just too many variables to consider when making conclusions. For example, the total number of children in a family, the spacing in years between the children, the changing economics and other circumstances of the parents over time, disability or illness of a child, gender, race; all are factors that can influence interpretations.

In spite of the research, people still give credence to this fallacy. I believe it has to do with parents providing a self-fulfilling prophecy to their children and relate to them on the basis of the false premise of birth order effects.

What do you believe?

Worked as a licensed psychologist in practice for over twenty-years. Sixteen years as a professor of Psychology at two major southern universities. Since retiring, has had two books published; "A Guide for Effective Psychotherapy" (a consumer's guide for mental health counseling) and 'Give Teens a Break!" (a positive look at teens). I've been an advocate for children, especially in the areas of emotional, physical and sexual abuse as well as treatment of the sexual offender. In addition, treatment of eating disorders, couple issues, and work with Child Protection Services as an expert witness. Extensive diagnostic skills. Presently, a speaker and presenter on various issues related to child growth and development. Please see my website:

That Elusive Birth Order Effect and What it Means for You By Susan Krauss Whitbourne - This Psychology Today article provides a good overview of the issue of birth order, stereotyping, limits of application and more. (Added: 13-May-2014 Hits: 948 )

Does birth order matter? What every parent needs to know By Deborah Skolnik - Informative article on birth order, and whether it's as strong a determinant of personality as most people think. Does it determine who we are? Cites some research (recent) on the topic. (Added: 13-May-2014 Hits: 917 )

Are the family clichťs about birth order true? By na - Presents finding that will help you decide how important birth order might be in terms of determining personality. Answers the question via science: Are the stereotypes true Ė or is the psychology of birth order just a load of hokum? (Added: 13-May-2014 Hits: 1017 )

Why the fascination with birth order? What does science say? By Rachel Lowry - The validity of the science of birth order itself remains contentious, said Toni Falbo, professor of educational psychology at the University of Texas. Most of the variants or factors that contribute to any particular outcome at any one time -- such as socioeconomic status or health -- are outside of birth order, said Falbo. "These are sorts of issues that have more direct connections to outcomes than whether you were second of three." The study -- which examined almost 400 students -- found that birth order can be a lens through which first and secondborns see the world differently in ways that impact their motivation and likelihood of career and personal success, though the roles often can be reversed with patience and practice. The findings emerge across and within families, Bernd Carette, an author of the study and psychologist in Belgium, told the Deseret News. (Added: 13-May-2014 Hits: 1092 )

The Importance of Birth Order By George G. Morgan - A child's place in the family hierarchy is important for a variety of reasons, not the least of which are the records left behind to assist your research. Some researchers concentrate their investigative efforts on nailing down vital dates for only direct ancestors. But ignoring your ancestors' brothers and sisters can be a costly omission. Birth order is important. pop (Added: 3-Dec-2003 Hits: 4801 )

Birth Order (editor's note - excellent) By na - Where a child places in the birth order can have an effect on how he sees himself. Research on birth order, sometimes referred to as ordinal position, shows that first born children are more likely to go to college than children in any other position in the family. Parents should attempt to help each child to see themselves as unique individuals and avoid comparisons with siblings or others. pop (Added: 3-Dec-2003 Hits: 5062 )

Pages Updated On: 29-Sep-2021 - 16:45:45

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