The question of whether a person’s position among siblings has a lasting impact on that person’s life course has fascinated both the scientific community and the general public for >100 years. By combining large datasets from three national panels, we confirmed the effect that firstborns score higher on objectively measured intelligence and additionally found a similar effect on self-reported intellect. However, we found no birth-order effects on extraversion, emotional stability, agreeableness, conscientiousness, or imagination. This finding contradicts lay beliefs and prominent scientific theories alike and indicates that the development of personality is less determined by the role within the family of origin than previously thought.Abstract
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.