I usually love science. It has provided me with a legitimate excuse to buy more workout clothes and it has made me feel better about the fact that I’m currently single. But today is the day that science has gone too far, suggesting that birth order has virtually no impact on your adult personality. Have the memes been lying to me this whole time? I’m being dramatic, of course (typical eldest child), but according to The Washington Post, several studies suggest that birth order personalities aren’t a thing. This is both a topic I care passionately about and one that I have not spent more than five minutes thinking about before today.
I called my mother to set the record straight. Have I just been imagining that my siblings and I fit neatly into the stereotypical categorization of birth order personalities? “I always have said I have three only children,” she said. “You were each five years apart so I had time alone with each of you during your formative younger years.” (I think that was her diplomatic way of telling me that we were all spoiled; further, she failed to confirm my long-standing belief that I am her favorite child.)
My mother agrees that my siblings and I fit into our respective stereotypes: I, the eldest, am neurotic and a rule-follower; my sister, the middle child, wants attention; my brother, the youngest, exhibits more characteristics of an elder child but is most certainly the baby of the family—my parents are so lenient with him I simply cannot. (Yes, distain for my younger brother’s ability to get away with almost anything is stereotypical behavior as the eldest child, and that’s the point.)
Now, let’s take a look at the science. The most recent study, published last week, looked at whether birth order might have an effect on risk-taking behaviors. Stereotypically, younger siblings are prone to risky behavior because, and I’m paraphrasing here, they want so much attention. Researchers reviewed the birth order of explorers and revolutionaries. They surveyed 11,000 German households and assessed the findings of the Basel-Berlin Risk Study, for which 1,500 people spent a day undergoing 40 psychological tests on the likelihood of engaging in risky behavior. Birth order, researchers concluded, was not a good indicator of whether or not one might engage in risky behavior.
Fine, science, you’ve got me there. I’d say this tracks, given my very limited and anecdotal experience. My sister is a risk-taker, and she’s the middle child. But my brother, the youngest, is even less of a risk-taker than I am—and I’m the kind of person who refuses to cross the street if the signal doesn’t tell me it’s okay, so that’s really saying something.
A study conducted in 2015 found that birth order did not influence any of the five major personality traits (openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism), known as the Big Five. Another study from 2015, analyzing 370,000 high school students, reached the same conclusion. There is no correlation between birth order and personality traits. You know what these studies did find, though? That the eldest children tend to have IQs one or two points higher than their younger siblings.
In the spirit of journalistic integrity and impartiality, it’s my duty to share with you this follow-up passage from the Washington Post article: “[B]efore all you firstborns lord your enhanced brains over your siblings, beware: The typical intelligence bonus from birth order is so small that ‘at an individual level it’ll never make a difference in your life.’”
Okay, first of all, calm down. Second of all, that’s exactly what I’m going to do.
You know you’re curious—here’s how to find out where you rank on each of the Big Five personality traits (plus what that means for you). And here’s how to pick the best plant for your personality.