New study finds birth order only having very small effects on personality and intelligence

There is a post on this blog with quite some views about the link between personality and birth order, based on meta-analyses. This new study does agree there are possible effects, but they are very small.Psychologists from the universities of Mainz and Leipzig, Germany, analyzed central personality traits of over 20,000 grown-ups from Germany, the USA, and Great Britain. Based on this research they conclude that who we become only marginally correlates with our birth position amongst siblings, eg. in intelligence.

From the press release:

The question of whether a person’s position among siblings has a lasting impact on personality has occupied scientist for more than 100 years. Laypeople as well a scientist share a number of beliefs: Firstborns are supposedly perfectionists, for example, while middle children develop a talent for diplomacy and last-borns are expected to be rebellious.

To shed some light on the so far inconsistent findings on whether these differences actually exist, Professor Stefan Schmukle and Julia Rohrer of Leipzig University and Professor Boris Egloff of Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU) analyzed the data of more than 20,000 grown-ups from Germany, the USA, and Great Britain. They found that central personality traits such as extraversion, emotional stability, agreeableness, and conscientiousness are not affected by birth-order position. Only regarding self-reported intellect small effects were found: Firstborns were more likely to report a rich vocabulary and less difficulty understanding abstract ideas.

These self-reports are not completely unfounded as the study confirmed the already known small decline in objectively measured intelligence from first- to last-born. “This effect on intelligence replicates very well in large samples, but it is barely meaningful on the individual level, because it is extremely small. And even though mean scores on intelligence decline, in four out of ten cases the later-born is still smarter than his or her older sibling,” explained Schnukle. “The real news of our study is that we found no substantial effects of birth order on any of the personality dimensions we examined. This does not only contradict prominent psychological theories, but also goes against the intuition of many people.”

The study was made possible by multiple large longitudinal studies: the German Socio-Economic Panel (SOEP) of the German Institute for Economic Research, the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY) of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, and the National Child Development Study (NCDS) at the Centre of Longitudinal Studies of the University of London.

Abstract of the study:

This study examined the long-standing question of whether a person’s position among siblings has a lasting impact on that person’s life course. Empirical research on the relation between birth order and intelligence has convincingly documented that performances on psychometric intelligence tests decline slightly from firstborns to later-borns. By contrast, the search for birth-order effects on personality has not yet resulted in conclusive findings. We used data from three large national panels from the United States (n = 5,240), Great Britain (n = 4,489), and Germany (n = 10,457) to resolve this open research question. This database allowed us to identify even very small effects of birth order on personality with sufficiently high statistical power and to investigate whether effects emerge across different samples. We furthermore used two different analytical strategies by comparing siblings with different birth-order positions (i) within the same family (within-family design) and (ii) between different families (between-family design). In our analyses, we confirmed the expected birth-order effect on intelligence. We also observed a significant decline of a 10th of a SD in self-reported intellect with increasing birth-order position, and this effect persisted after controlling for objectively measured intelligence. Most important, however, we consistently found no birth-order effects on extraversion, emotional stability, agreeableness, conscientiousness, or imagination. On the basis of the high statistical power and the consistent results across samples and analytical designs, we must conclude that birth order does not have a lasting effect on broad personality traits outside of the intellectual domain.


1 Comment

Filed under At home, Research

One response to “New study finds birth order only having very small effects on personality and intelligence

  1. Pingback: Lectuur op zaterdag: de aarde is plat, het internet bijna en Lionel zegt Hello! | X, Y of Einstein?

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