Sibling Rivalry 

The Revolution Begins at Home

Page 4 of 7

Is there a relation between birth order and crime rates?

There appear to be too many influences going in different directions when we consider the possible relationship between crime rate and birth order. Firstborns are more tough-minded than laterborns, so they might be more inclined toward violent crime, but they are also more socially conventional, so they are probably less likely to get involved in crime at all. Hence I would not want to offer a prediction about birth order and criminal behavior. Perhaps there is a relationship between birth order and types of criminal behavior. There is some evidence that laterborns are more likely to be involved in delinquency, but that is a phenomenon that appears to be associated with lower-class families being larger, with more laterborns. So again, I don't think there is much of a relationship between crime and birth order.

What about birth order and voting behavior?

The current data on this subject are mixed. Several different studies using historical samples--for example, US Supreme Court voting--indicate that laterborns tend to vote in a more liberal direction than firstborns. By comparison, a big study a couple of years ago showed no differences in political attitudes in a sample of about 1,200 subjects. Still, this particular survey did not ask the respondents to compare themselves with their siblings, so we really don't know what the within-family results would have been.

With a colleague, Michael Shermer, I collected another large sample on religiosity, and we found small but significant differences in religiosity and political views when measured within the family. In another sample of more than 20,000 subjects whom I surveyed using the Internet, I found a consistent tendency for laterborns to report being more unconventional and untraditional than older siblings. It should be kept in mind that the differences I obtained in political attitudes in my book were not that big. Much more impressive differences show up when we ask: Given the political attitudes people hold, how likely are they to endorse a new way of thinking?

Let's shift ground a bit. Some people don't want to believe that their receptivity to radical change has to do with something as arbitrary as birth order. People feel that their sense of free will has been affronted.

I think this is a pseudo-issue on two fronts. First, these behavioral phenomena are not really "deterministic"; they are self-deterministic. Laterborns are more likely to use low-power strategies within the family, but they have a choice, and they learn to exercise the optimum strategy by first punching their elder sibling, for example, and learning that their elder sibling can punch back harder, so they soon come to the conclusion that this is a stupid strategy. And they learn to perfect a variety of low-power strategies, including the use of humor. In other words the subject is an active agent in the development of these strategies. Are such behaviors strictly determined or are they self-determined via strategic choices?

But it's not you who determines the self-determination; it's a birth-ordered situation over which you have no control.

We do have some choices. It is not as if we are all completely passive vehicles in some massively deterministic plot.

But a second, more important point in response to your question involves understanding effect sizes. No one is saying that birth order accounts for 100 percent of the variance in human behavior. It is just one of those many variables that add one or two or three percent to the explained variance in behavior in specific contexts. This means there are lots of other considerations influencing human behavior and, in many cases, supplementing or overriding birth-order differences. Some people seem to be alarmed by the idea that birth order may influence whether one endorses a radical revolution, for example. But, ironically, they do not seem to be alarmed by the notion that gender has an influence on levels of aggressivity or physical violence, or that social class "determines" educational levels. Similarly, people don't get upset about the idea that very religious people are more likely to endorse conservative causes. That influence is much bigger than any known birth-order effect. So, in essence, some people are bothered by the small amount of the variance in behavior that is explained by birth order, but are not bothered at all by other equally "deterministic" influences.

But you're giving us one more thing to be upset about.

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