Ulterior Motives

How goals, both seen and unseen, drive behavior

Are Later-Born Children More Rebellious?

The observed effects of birth order on behavior may be statistical errors.

There is a popular belief that the behavior of children in a family depends a lot on their birth order.  First-born children are supposed to be fairly conformist, because they do not have to compete for their parents’ attention and resources at the start of their lives.  They have a favored status that leads them to identify with authority.  Middle children have to fight hard for attention, and so they may rebel as a way of getting noticed.  This effect should be mixed for the youngest in a family.  On the one hand, they also have to compete for attention. As the youngest, however, they may get some amount of attention just for being the last child. 

This idea has also been put forward within the psychology community.  For example, Frank Sulloway wrote the popular book Born to Rebel essentially making this case. 

Some data have been collected that support this idea.  In typical analyses, researchers find large-scale surveys that measure rebellious behaviors in teens (like drinking, marijuana use, and nonviolent crime) and then look to see whether birth order in families predicts the delinquent behavior.  The typical finding is that middle children are most likely to exhibit these behaviors, and first born children are least likely to display them. 

The problem with these analyses is that they are typically done between families.  That is, the children all come from different families, and so it is hard to know for sure whether birth order is the true cause of the effect or whether it is some other variable like parental involvement in the family that is causing the observed relationship.

A paper in the August, 2013 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin by Patrick Cundiff found a data set that allowed him to tease apart these effects.  He analyzed the Add Health survey that was collected on school children from 1994-2008.  This survey collected information about a variety of children’s behaviors.  The survey also contained a lot of data about siblings within a family.  The survey also had information about potential confounding factors like socioeconomic status, grade point average in school, and parental involvement in the home. 

Cundiff did both a between family and a within family analysis of the data.  The between family analysis used all of the children in the sample (over 14,000), while the within-family analysis used only the data from 3,800 children where the entire family was observed. 

The between-family analysis showed the same effects as previous research.  This analysis found that middle children were about 33% more likely to exhibit delinquent behaviors than firstborn children.  Last born children were about 20% more likely to exhibit these behaviors than firstborn children.  Examination of a variety of aspects of the children like grade point average and aspects of families like parental closeness did not eliminate the effect of birth order.

However, when the data set looked only within families, the relationship between birth order and delinquent behavior was sharply reduced in size and was no long statistically significant.  In this analysis, only gender and parental involvement had a reliable effect on behavior.  That is, boys were more likely to engage in delinquent behavior than girls, and children with a low level of parental involvement were more likely to engage in delinquent behavior than children with a high level of parental involvement. 

This paper is consistent with a growing body of evidence suggesting that there are few reliable effects of birth order on children’s behavior. Thus, while it is intuitively reasonable to think that firstborn and later-born children differ, it does not look like that is really happening.

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Art Markman, Ph.D., is a cognitive scientist at the University of Texas whose research spans a range of topics in the way people think.

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