Can Birth Order Determine Success or Failure? Science Says Maybe So.
A Note From The Editor
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Throughout history, commentators have spent a great deal of energy deliberating on what makes outstanding entrepreneurs, CEOs, political leaders and high achievers. Not to go all nature-versus-nurture on you, but it really does come down to two schools of ontology. One believes leaders are born (such as the Great Man theory of leadership and gene theory). The other believes leaders are made.
Related: Are Entrepreneurs Born or Made?
Birth-order theory is its own intriguing body of thought. It advances the idea that leaders are shaped by their direct environment.
First conceived by the 19th-century scientist and polymath, Sir Francis Galton, this theory was made popular in the late 1920s by Austrian psychotherapist Alfred Adler. Birth-order theory asserts our personality and our success in careers, relationships and future life all is shaped and determined by the order in which we were born within our family unit. Here's a brief outline of each identified role.
According to the stereotype, firstborns tend to be serious, structured, goal-driven, high-achieving, well-organized and logical thinkers. Negative traits include bossiness and controlling behavior. They are pioneers and problem-solvers who gravitate toward politics, science, exploration and industry. More than half of U.S. presidents were firstborn children or firstborn sons. Other firstborn world political leaders include Eleanor Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, Benito Mussolini, Jawaharlal Nehru and Angela Merkel.
Many CEOs and entrepreneurs also are firstborn. Think Christine Lagarde, Elon Musk, Michael Eisner, Richard Branson, Jeff Bezos and Marissa Mayer. A Vistage survey identified 43 percent of participating CEO members as firstborn, and another report revealed firstborns are more likely to be founders. All but two of the first 23 astronauts were firstborn, and those outliers were only children. So were famous explorers including Christopher Columbus and Sir Francis Drake. Firstborns dominate Nobel Laureates in science: Jane Goodall, Susan Greenfield, Jocelyn Bell Burnell, Sigmund Freud and Albert Einstein. Studies suggest firstborns score higher in IQ tests, earn higher salaries and perform better in school than their siblings.
The theory reasons that parents treat firstborns as the “first draft,” showing more protection, nurturing and attention to the elder child than subsequent newborns. This may explain firstborns´ confidence, overachievement and parental closeness. Parental obsession with firstborns usually is evident in family photo albums, which tend to be disproportionately full of pictures of the eldest child and can signify precious-firstborn syndrome.
According to the research, middle children tend to be relationship-orientated, agreeable, open-minded, free-thinking and rebellious. They also typically have good social, empathetic and peacemaking skills. Negative traits include resentfulness and a sense of neglect and unbelonging. Middle children's inclusive and peer-oriented outlook -- coupled with a drive for social values, fairness and self-improvement -- can make for great modern entrepreneurs and leaders. Middles make exceptional negotiators, mediators, innovators and justice-seekers.
All these qualities are apparent in famous middle-child U.S. presidents such as Herbert Hoover, John F. Kennedy and a trio of middle children who also were firstborn sons: Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt. Other middleborn political leaders include Emmeline Pankhurst, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr. (a firstborn son), Lech Walesa and Anwar Sadat.
Related: How Emotionally Intelligent Are You?
Studies suggest middle children do not get as much attention as their firstborn and lastborn siblings. This makes them more inclined than firstborns to take risks, innovate and build coalitions. Parents tend to be more relaxed toward middles than they were toward the "first drafts." Consequently, middle children often seem better able to cope with change and pressure than are their older siblings.
If firstborns lead through dominance, middles lead through cooperativeness, relationship-building, negotiation and peacemaking skills. All of these qualities can be seen in famous CEOs and entrepreneurs such as Bill Gates, Warren Buffett and Michael Dell. These same traits make middle children good interviewers (David Letterman, for one). Middles often are free spirits (Ernest Hemmingway and Princess Diana).
Lastborns are the babies of their families. According to stereotype, they tend to be the greatest risk-takers. In fact, one UC Berkeley study suggests younger siblings are 1.5 times more likely to participate in high-risk sports. Lastborns also are impulsive, rebellious, unconventional, gregarious and born entertainers.
Some research supports the notion they're more comical, easy-going and relaxed than the first sibling. In "The Birth Order Book," psychologist and speaker Kevin Leman writes: "The lastborn is the one who will probably still have a pet name although he's 29 and has a masters degree."
Negative traits include issues that stem from living in the shadow of older siblings. Constant comparison with others makes life sometimes feel unfair to youngest children. Their personality seems best-suited for creative vocations such as the arts and entertainment industry. Many lastborns are famous comedians and actors: Whoopi Goldberg, Jim Carrey, Drew Carey, Rosie O´Donnell, Eddie Murphy, Billy Crystal, Stephen Colbert, Goldie Hawn, Steve Martin, Jon Stewart, Ellen DeGeneres and Charlie Chaplin. Of course, firstborns also are represented in the entertainment world, but here is an intriguing fact -- many firstborn movie stars (including Clint Eastwood, John Wayne, Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis and every actor who's played James Bond) chose macho roles.
Lastborns tend to choose careers other family members have avoided. Research from Birmingham University suggests that lastborns tend to venture into traditional business roles only if other family members have chosen different career paths. In the world of business, lastborns are more likely to take bigger risks with products and projects than firstborns, and they're proven salespeople. They also make great doctors, educators and original thinkers -- Copernicus and Descartes both were the babies in their families. Lastborn Mahatma Gandhi challenged the existing order and paved the way for an independent India.
Lastborns are theorized to receive more space and freedom from parents. By the time the youngest arrives, mom and dad have more child-raising experience and are more lenient and less rule-orientated. Moreover, lastborns tend to fight less with their parents because family rules and privileges already are in place (the firstborn had to fight for these rights). Living under older siblings means lastborns tend to challenge the status quo, but they typically do so through charm and humor.
U.S. Census Bureau statistics demonstrate that single-child families have increased from 10 million to 15 million since 1972, making them the fastest-growing family unit in the nation. Single-child families are common in China and also are on the rise in the United Kingdom and other European countries.
According to the stereotype, only children tend to be confident, socially mature, high-achieving, conscientious, goal-driven and used to getting their own way. They are negatively seen as black-and-white, attention-seeking perfectionists who dislike disorder. They have a tendency to assume others know how they're feeling or unquestionably think the same way they do. Only children tend to have problems working for large organizations and are more likely to work independently or for small companies. In terms of drive and achievement, onlies share many traits with firstborns. Psychologist and author Leman calls only children "firstborns in triplicate."
Famous only children include many writers and artists: E.M. Forster, Ezra Pound, Hans Christian Andersen, Iris Murdoch, Jean-Paul Sartre, John Updike, Lillian Hellman, Danielle Steel, Karl Marx and Leonardo da Vinci. Only-child solo-sports stars include Tiger Woods, Nick Faldo and Maria Sharapova. You'll find onlies in politics as well, including Condoleezza Rice, Rudy Giuliani, Indira Gandhi and Theresa May.
Only children are thought to mature quickly because they are surrounded by adults and receive a great deal of individual parental attention. They are used to solitary pursuits, which explains why many writers and solo-sports athletes are only children. Onlies may be dependent on their parents for longer than other children, spending more time at home and delaying decisions about their future.
Birth-order theory has been debated inconclusively since the late 1800s. It was one of the reasons for the bitter public feud and name-calling between Alfred Adler (the prominent behavioral psychologist who helped popularize the theory) and his erstwhile colleague and friend Sigmund Freud (who resented Adler for moving away from a neural-based psychoanalytic approach and toward an individual, context-based psychology). Adler founded the Society for Individual Psychology in 1912. The debate lives on in the extensive number of birth-order studies published since the mid-1950s.
Key objections to birth-order theory include a few thought-provoking challenges:
The theory is unquantifiable pop psychology with no scientific base. Critics say examples are selective. NASA astronauts, American presidents and Oprah Winfrey always seem to be mentioned in these studies.
Acceptance of this theory is based on the (nurture) presumption that behavior is conditioned.
People may try to live up to their birth order. Critics say people are shaped by what they read (psychologists calls this confirmation bias).
The family constellation is far more complex than the cozy birth order that seems to be behind a lot of the research. Steve Jobs was an adopted child, Jeff Bezos was born to a single teenage parent and both Josef Stalin and Adolf Hitler experienced sibling deaths and abusive fathers.
Other factors are at play within family units, including gender, twins, sibling death, age spacing, temperament and physicality -- all of which have been shown to shape personality. (As for twins, the Barclay brothers as well as Harold and Bernard Shapiro went into equal-status professions.)
There are notable exceptions to the simple, ordinal birth-position model. Margaret Thatcher, a lastborn, displayed firstborn characteristics. President Donald Trump was a middle child who took on the “job vacancy” of firstborn when his older brother failed to fit the role. Carly Fiorina is a middle child who also has firstborn characteristics. Published statistics from the White-Campbell Psychological Birth Order Inventory (or PBOI) -- a test developed to measure whether people are a “fit” for their family ordinal position -- indicate only 23 percent of women and 15 percent of men are true matches to their ordinal birth order.
It´s not rocket science. In his book "Confessions," written between A.D. 397 and A.D. 400, the classic scholar St. Augustine of Hippo wrote: “I saw with my own eyes and I observed carefully a young child devoured by jealousy. He was not yet able to speak yet he could not prevent himself from going pale at the bitter spectacle of his brother at the breast.” In birth-order speak, this is known as the “dethronement” theory.
If you believe environmental factors can shape personality and behavior, it's difficult to ignore birth-order theory. At its core, it asserts that our personality become solidified during our formative years spent within an organized family unit. And the latest Pew Research shows people are living even longer in the family home, which could further entrench this behavior.
Some birth-order theorists promise the world. Taking into account the objections and reservations around stereotyping and variations, the theory still can prove useful in a leader's toolkit. Many models and systems exist to aid our understanding of personalities and generational differences. Considering birth order's role in this mix may help us appreciate other's drivers or traits -- and recognize our own.