Does Birth Order Affect Personality?


If you’re a first-born, you were probably president of your graduating class in high school, running a company today and taking over the world tomorrow.

Middle child? Can you say “Jan Brady?”

Youngest? We’re still waiting for you to grow up, and you turn 40 next week.

There are plenty of stereotypes when it comes to birth order and who it makes you. Studies on the subject stack up like stairsteps, and opinions are as different on the subject as, well, all of us and our children.

Jackson State University psychology professor and interim department chair Pamela Banks says there are so many influences on how personalities are developed that singling out birth order might be offbase.

“There’s not a great deal of empirical evidence that birth order significantly effects personality,” she said.


At least, not all by itself. Let’s say there is a first-born child who is also detail-oriented. “Because these things happen together,” she said, “we think it is the effect of birth order, but there are so many other factors.”

Still, the studies persist.

In 2007, USA Today noted a study by Norwegian scientists that was published in the journal Science found that oldest children had, on average, a slightly higher IQ than their siblings. And a poll the same year by USA Today and the CEO organization Vistage found that, of respondents, 43 percent of Vistage members were first-borns, 23 percent were the youngest in the family and 33 percent were stuck in the middle.

Results can conflict, depending on who’s questioned. A 2006 study, reported by USA Today, said that, instead of being a good example, older siblings can be a negative influence on their younger brothers and sisters, making them more likely to experiment in risky behaviors such as drinking, smoking or using marijuana.

However, those siblings also make you less likely to divorce, according to a study presented to the American Sociological Association this year.

“There are a lot of other factors that affect divorce that are more important than how many siblings you had. However, we’re finding that the number of siblings is a factor,” Ohio State University sociologist Doug Downey, a co-author of the study, said in a USA Today interview. “Each additional sibling reduces their chances of divorce a little bit.”

The authors suggest that siblings further the development of social skills useful in navigating marriage, which makes me laugh as I have accused my two youngest, a boy and a girl who love to fight over everything from who ate the last Little Debbie cake to what TV show to watch, of sounding like a bad marriage.

Their social skills need more development.

And from another study from Ohio State University, this one circa 2010, onlies are no less capable of developing good social skills than those raised with brothers and sisters.

“I don’t think anyone has to be concerned that if you don’t have siblings, you won’t learn the social skills you need to get along with other students in high school,” study co-author Donna Bobbitt-Zeher, an assistant professor of sociology on OSU’s Marion campus, said in a news release from the American Sociological Association.

Whew. That is a relief.

But the stories about birth order ... there are as many as there are families.


Said Beth Elliott of Clinton on a Facebook thread: “I am the youngest and only girl. At 52, I would say I am really enjoying childhood.”

And another youngest and only girl, Sara Claire Green of Madison, chimed in. “I have two older brothers, one by 11 and the other by six years. At my dad’s funeral last year, my oldest brother pretty much summed it up for one of the visitors. ‘When I was 14, my daddy had me working on a delivery truck before school, by 14, my other brother was mowing yards summers and after school, and then there’s Sara Claire. All she had to do was smile!’”

But some say, “Nope, not buying it,” on whether birth order is a predictor of future personality traits.

Nicole Bradshaw, a blogger from Madison, said she’s neither “angsty” nor a peacemaker, some of the stereotypes that surround middle kids.

Still, no two siblings grow up in the same house goes an old saying, meaning that each child is parented a little differently. That’s something Dr. Banks noted, too, as an influence on birth order-related personalities.