Sibling Rivalry 

The Revolution Begins at Home

Page 5 of 7

Right, but it seems reasonable for me to expect consistency from the people who express such views. If someone is upset about this moderate player in the game of understanding human behavior, then they ought to be much more upset by other equally "deterministic" influences that they take for granted.

Still, in specific contexts you claim that the effect of birth order is quite strong. You write: "During major revolutions choices between the old and new order can almost always be traced to differences in family niches." The idea that I would support or not support a revolution because of my birth order is a little hard to swallow.

One needs to be careful here. I am saying that one can almost always trace some influence in major revolutions to family niches--I am not saying family niches are therefore the only element of the story that we need to know about. Hence, I am not saying that family niches are the only cause of individual references in radicalism. I am just saying that there appears to be a consistent link.

To understand Born to Rebel, one needs to recognize that it is really two books in one, with the second book being represented by several hundred pages of notes and appendices. In one of these appendices, I provide information about the relative importance of ten variables that were significant in predicting attitudes toward evolution from 1700 to 1875--the best predictor of the lot of attitudes toward that revolution was religiosity. Birth order was the second-best predictor. Other significant predictors included being young. National origins also played a role, as did parent-offspring conflict. What I provide, then, is documentation of a multivariate model in which birth order is just one of many relevant influences on scientific radicalism. It is true that when we examine radical revolutions, they generally do appear to tap within-family differences that I explain, in part, as the product of sibling strategies. In addition, the more radical the revolution, the more likely we are to observe this behavioral link. Still, birth order never acts alone.

A lot of people feel a lot of guilt at the way they treated their siblings when they were children. I wince when I think of the way I verbally taunted and tried to manipulate my older brother. You encourage people to see this process in terms of natural Darwinian survival strategies.

It is important for people to realize that they are not the only ones who did a lot of sneaky, sometimes even nasty things to their siblings. Almost everybody's sibling was responding right back with such competitive behaviors. It's useful to realize that sibling rivalry and sibling competition are universal phenomena that we appear to be hardwired to experience, at least under certain circumstances, and that sibling competition was generally more of a life-and-death struggle in the past than it is today. Yet we are still hardwired today to act as if such competitive behavior might make a difference in who lives or dies and who is favored by parents, and so on. I believe that seeing this competitive process in evolutionary terms helps to depersonalize the animosity that was involved and allows people to transcend it. Of course, an evolutionary perspective doesn't guarantee that siblings will be able to put their childhood conflicts behind them, but it does provide a window of insight to be able to realize, "Gee, my brother was sometimes a bastard, but perhaps it wasn't all that personal after all."

Older siblings tend to take advantage of physical dominance in their interactions with their juniors, and younger siblings, who can't use physical force as effectively, often employ satire and wit in very cruel ways. Voltaire is a great example of someone who could cut his elder sibling to the quick with clever verbal retorts. And if the parents laugh at such satirical barbs, then the victimized sibling can't really retaliate because the retort is perceived to be made in jest. In sibling competition, each sibling is trying to evolve, in his or her own niche space, those talents that are the most effective in sibling conflicts, and they sometimes use those talents--even purely verbal ones--like a knife blade.

But I want to emphasize that this kind of aggressivity is not necessarily true of every sibling relationship. One of the most interesting questions, about which there is little research, relates to sibling pairs that are remarkably harmonious.

In lectures on the topic of birth order I sometimes give out advice on how parents can make siblings less competitive. The advice I give is this: Siblings will compete over anything. If parents are really able to convince their offspring that they value cooperation, siblings will begin to compete over who is the most cooperative sibling. But this tactic by parents has to be genuine. If offspring think that parents are trying to pull the wool over their eyes, the tactic won't work. But suppose the parents are Quakers who truly value nonviolence. Then siblings will pick up on the value system of the parents, and their behavior will feed into that system in a way that maximally rewards them for their nonviolent efforts. So you end up with a family of Gandhis.

In encouraging cooperation, parents can do things like reward jointly done tasks. If they give their kids $20 to mow the lawn, then they should give them $25 to do it together. Similarly, parents can allow their kids the chance to pick the next vacation spot that the family visits. But here's the catch: The kids have to work together to organize the whole vacation, and if they cannot do so harmoniously, they lose the opportunity to go where they wanted to go.

I find research on birth-order effects interesting, but I don't exactly know what to do with it.

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