Sibling Rivalry 

The Revolution Begins at Home

Page 3 of 7

There have been studies suggesting that new parents are more anxious parents, as you say. That may or may not have an influence on personality; it would be surprising if it didn't have some influence. The question is: how much?

I examined the eldest children of people who had married spouses who already had previous children, so these biological firstborns grew up as functional laterborns. I found that these biological firstborns tended to act more like laterborns in history. I couldn't find any difference between them and true laterborns.

So my own feeling is that there are probably some consequences of differences in parental behavior toward children of differing birth ranks, but such psychological differences may not necessarily affect radicalism. Having an anxious, controlling parent might make a difference in terms of how exploratory such children are, but exploratoriness and radicalism are not the same things.

"Exploratoriness" sounds a lot like openness to experience, which, you claim, is greater in laterborns.

Yes, but remember I said that openness to experience has two very different elements to it. There is an intellectual element at which firstborns excel--they obtain higher IQ and SAT scores, for example. Openness to experience is a broad term; it all depends on what kind of openness we're talking about. As long as it is openness within the system, firstborns have an advantage. When we consider the laterborn component of openness--namely, unconventionality--it is a subset of what we are talking about in terms of openness more generally. Firstborns are, by the way, overrepresented in "intellectual" kinds of revolutions; this finding is consistent with the extensive data on firstborn intellectual superiority. Laterborns excel in one subcomponent of openness--namely, radicalism and rebelliousness--and that is why I was very careful to define what I meant by a "radical" revolution. I meant a revolution that is socially, politically, and religiously radical, and that is why I used 110 expert raters to operationalize exactly what that meant.

A radical revolution is something that the Pope generally doesn't like. By contrast, a conservative revolution is something the Pope does like. A technical revolution, in which firstborns would also likely excel, is something the Pope generally doesn't understand and, for this reason, neither likes nor dislikes. There is a chart in my book in the last chapter that plots 28 major scientific controversies in terms of where they lie on a social ideology spectrum and then indicates what kind of birth-order effects one obtains in each case. The chart nicely supports the point I have been making here and shows just how context-sensitive birth-order effects are.

It seems to me that the American Psychological Association should mandate that the birth order of subjects be given as part of the information in all psychological research. For instance, [UC Berkeley psychologist] Robert Levenson has developed an objective measure of empathy, defined as having the ability to know what others are feeling. I would be very curious to know if there are differences in objective measures of empathy and birth order. You would presumably predict that firstborns would be less empathetic.

Yes, and there are several studies showing just that. But this whole line of research needs to be interpreted correctly. The argument is not that firstborns lack empathy. Every firstborn has learned to be empathetic under some circumstance. The question is: what portion of a person's time and energy do they spend being empathetic under particular circumstances? Laterborns, for example, are more fun-loving than firstborns, but that doesn't mean firstborns can't laugh at a good joke. Everyone is capable of expressing these same traits. But one needs to reconceive traits as "strategies," and then to understand that there is a preference for certain kinds of strategies over others by birth order, and that these sometimes subtle preferences will only be elicited in public under certain limited circumstances--for example, when they are appropriate, and when the context is right for a successful behavioral outcome.

I like to remind people that Robespierre was a pretty nice guy before the French Revolution broke out. It took the French Revolution to turn Robespierre into a leader of the Reign of Terror.

Your research suggests certain obvious questions. Will China's one-child policy have a political effect on the future of China, solely as a result of birth-order effects?

It will have some effect, but not much. The consequences of one-child families are counterintuitive. As countries go from having large families down to just one or two offspring per family, the offspring that are lost are all middleborns. There is always a first and a last child, and middleborns are in between them on most measures of radicalism. So, on radicalism at least, the mean of the sample doesn't change much when sibship size declines from six to two. When sibship size finally declines from two to one, it is not that we go from a world half-filled with laterborns to one exclusively filled with firstborns. Rather, we now find ourselves in a world of only children, and only children, like middleborns, are intermediate in most personality characteristics between firstborns and laterborns; in their attitudes toward revolutionary changes, only children are a little more like firstborns than laterborns, but they are not identical. So, as sibship size declines from two children to one, the population for radical inclinations becomes lowered only slightly. Still, radical revolutions do depend on population differences, so it is conceivable that such demographic changes could exert a small but meaningful effect.

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