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Birth Order and Personality

Birth order tends to set the stage on which siblings are assigned a role.

WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Cynthia Haines

The "science" of birth order seems to have been boiled down to "first-borns are driven" and "the babies of the family are spoiled and aimless." But as first proposed by psychologist Alfred Adler, it is a complicated system of studies and observations that lead to generalizations about behavior.

"The science of Adler never really delivered on its promises," explains Clifford Isaacson, co-author of The Birth Order Effect: How to Better Understand Yourself and Others. In his years of counseling and making observations about birth order, Isaacson (and others) has since tweaked and improved upon the Adler model.

According to Adler, first-borns (and only-children, to a greater degree) have 100% of attention from both parents. They can be overprotected and spoiled and like being the center of adult attention. They may develop an adult vocabulary. They may also have difficulty sharing with siblings and peers.

First-Borns

More than half of U.S. presidents have been first-borns. Two-thirds of entrepreneurs are first-borns. Two-thirds of the people in Who's Who also are first-borns. The roster includes presidents Truman, Johnson, Carter, and George W. Bush; Bill Cosby, Oprah Winfrey, Geraldo Rivera, and Jackie Onassis.

Birth order, Isaacson says, is about coping. What do first-borns have to cope with? Their parents and their parents' expectations -- at least at first. "Think of it," says Tom Connellan, PhD, author of Bringing Out the Best in Others! 3 Key Factors for Business Leaders, Educators, and Parents. "When you are the only child, and you fall down, the parent says, 'Oh, come on, honey, get up, you can do this, you're OK. See? All better.' Later, for other children, it may be: 'Oh, quit crying, you're fine.'"

Therefore, according to Isaacson, first-borns have the confidence to dream and plan. They feel like they will be respected and supported in what they do. "These are the highest achievers," writes psychologist Daniel Eckstein, PhD, from Ottawa University in Phoenix, Ariz.

Traits of first-borns, the experts say, are goal-setting, high achievement, perfectionism, sense of responsibility, rule-keeping, and attention to detail. They also can be worriers and attempt to please everyone.

Second-Borns

Second-born children, Adler said, have someone out in front, a pacemaker, so they become more competitive, wanting to overtake the first child. Second-borns may try to outdo everyone or rebel. "Seconds can get to feeling inadequate," Isaacson says. "They are constantly competing."

Seconds, Eckstein writes, may have a feeling of not belonging. David Letterman is a second child, so is Donald Trump.

Third-Borns

Adler said third-born kids are "sandwiched in." They may feel squeezed out of a position of privilege or lost in the crowd. This can result, he wrote, in a feeling of "take it or leave it."

"The second children usually pass on their feeling of inadequacy to the third child by teasing," Isaacson notes.

Traits of second and third children include flexibility, diplomacy, peacemaking, generosity, and an outgoing, social nature. But within all that -- a finely tuned competitiveness is always at work.

Last-Borns

We're talking big families here! The thirds could be last-borns. According to Isaacson, last-borns often are on their own. Their siblings tell them, "Go away, you can't play with us." They tend to be risk-takers, outgoing "idea people." Last-borns often have a better sense of humor, too, and can be more likely to question authority.

Adler said last-borns often have big plans that don't work out. They can stay "the baby" throughout life. According to Eckstein, youngest children may have more psychiatric disorders and be prone to substance problems.

Traits of last-borns include charm, tendency to be manipulative, persistence, and love of attention. Katie Couric is a last-born, as are Ross Perot, Goldie Hawn, Jim Carrey, Jay Leno, and Billy Crystal.

How Can You Use This Information?

There are exceptions to all of these so-called rules -- they are tendencies, based on educated observations, not destiny. Isaacson said he worked out these differences using his own children as models. Eckstein writes that he explored 151 empirical studies to glean his findings. Still, like every theory, there are exceptions.

First, if there are more than five years between kids, the siblings are like two only-children. Groups of older and younger kids (such as we see with more men marrying younger women and starting new families) create their own birth-order arrangements.

Secondly, the mother, according to Isaacson, can materially affect personality and reverse or change birth-order traits. If she preferred a son and got a first-born daughter, she can relegate the girl down the line to the traits of a competitive, unsure, second- or third-born.

Connellan goes beyond this, however, in analyzing birth-order information and putting it to use. Look at how many pictures you take of the first-born compared to the others, he says (and how much room in this article is allotted to first-borns compared with the others). That's feedback, he explains. First-borns get more feedback. "First-borns," Connellan says, "also get more positive expectations and more responsibility at an early age."

Those three conditions -- positive expectations, accountability, and feedback -- can be used to recreate the same conditions that create first-borns, Connellan says. This could apply to an employee as well as a child (though asking people where they stood in the family is probably a human relations no-no).

This could apply to anyone despite their birth order in the family -- or the larger human family. As one psychologist noted, "Everyone comes into the world in a different place." True, in more ways than one.

Originally published Dec. 2, 2002.

Medically updated February 2005.


SOURCES: Clifford Isaacson, co-author, The Birth Order Effect: How to Better Understand Yourself and Others • Tom Connellan, PhD, author, Bringing Out the Best in Others! 3 Key Factors for Business Leaders, Educators, and Parents • "Birth Order & Personality Differences: Empirical Studies Indicating Significant Birth-Order Related Personality Differences," Daniel Eckstein, PhD, associate professor of counseling psychology, Ottawa University, Phoenix, Ariz. • "The Perfect Spat," Amy McRary, Scripss Howard News Service.

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