Birth Order Bias: A Look at Sibling Stereotypes

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Anyone who’s grown up in a family with two or more siblings knows that not all children seem to be created equal. Instead, it might look something like this: The ambitious, responsible eldest child who sets the standard, the attention-deprived middle child who flies under the radar, and the coddled “baby” of the family who can do no wrong. And only children are a different breed entirely: mature beyond their years and hungry for the spotlight.

Obviously, these stereotypes aren’t set in stone — things like temperament, family size, gender, and age spacing between siblings can certainly affect family dynamics. But we decided to take a look at a handful of questions from UVA’s marriage pact survey to see just how much birth order can affect our personalities and decision-making.

As per usual, oldest children went first. We began by investigating a few common stereotypes, namely their tendency to be ambitious and high-achieving. For the question “I know I will achieve the goals I set for myself,” oldest children took the lead, but only by a very slim margin; the average response for all four groups fell between 5.48 and 5.46. But at an academically rigorous school like UVA, it’s not surprising that students are driven and goal-oriented across the board.

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Additionally, because oldest children receive undivided parental attention until their siblings are born, their average IQ also tends to be higher than middle and youngest children. It’s a classic nature vs. nurture situation: While genes can certainly influence baseline levels of intelligence, family structure seems to play an even bigger role in childrens’ cognitive development.

To see if there was some of this sentiment at UVA, we looked at students’ averages for the following question: “Are you smarter than other people at UVA?” Sure enough, oldest children came in first with an average of 4.32, while middle children came in last. Whether or not oldest children truly outperform their peers in school, they certainly seem to have the most confidence when it comes to academic achievement.

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Next up: the elusive middle child. Middle children seem to get a bad rap, pinned as the neglected wallflower sandwiched between their older and younger siblings.

But recent studies show that middle children can actually be diplomatic negotiators who comfortably hop between social circles — likely due to years of compromise with their siblings and desire for close friendships outside of the family. On the other hand, middle children can also turn into rule-bending rebels — perhaps because their antics tend to go unnoticed by their parents.

At UVA, middle children stuck out in two categories. First, for the question “If there were a red light, but no one was on the road, I would go,” they took a decisive lead.

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Perhaps this is where the rebel stereotype comes into play: Middle children — accustomed to taking a back seat in the family — have learned that they can get away with what their other siblings can’t.

However, it seems that middle childrens’ tendency to blend in or defer to others can also make them especially compromising and empathetic. When it came to the question “I would be okay if I spent my life doing good for others but did not receive recognition for it,” middle children had the highest averages, proving that they can be benevolent peacemakers (in addition to stealthy rule-breakers).

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Next, we took a look at youngest children. The babies of the family tend to receive the least amount of scaffolding from their worn-out parents, who have already been around the block once or more. For this reason, they typically shoulder fewer responsibilities, growing up more easygoing, exuberant, and free-spirited than their siblings. While fewer responsibilities means that youngest children might mature more slowly, it also makes them more likely to be fearless risk-takers — for better or worse.

For the question “I consider myself to be an adult,” youngest children came in last — despite being the same age as their peers with younger siblings. This is fairly unsurprising, given that youngest children typically grow up with less pressure from their parents and have the luxury of aging at their own pace. Only children took a decisive lead — but we’ll delve into that later.

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As for risk-taking, youngest children tend to be the most liberal when it comes to substance use. For the questions “It’s ok that my partner drinks,” “does softer drugs,” and “does harder drugs,” youngest children took the lead, suggesting that they get along well with those on the wild side.

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Youngest children are also more likely to dive head-first into relationships; on average, they claim to wait the shortest amount of time before having sex with the person they’re seeing.

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Whether you view them as social butterflies or hedonistic party-goers, it seems youngest children are always on the pursuit of happiness.

And last but certainly not least: The only child. With no siblings at all, only children fit into an entirely different category, which was clearly reflected in a few questions from UVA’s survey. As noted in our analysis of youngest children, only children are the most likely to consider themselves as adults — likely because they had to shoulder all the familial responsibility that would normally be distributed between kids.

Because only children reap all the benefits of their parents’ undivided attention and affection, they also tend to crave the spotlight even after leaving home. For the question “I need to be famous,” only children came up with the highest average — though UVA responses were quite low across the board.

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In a similar vein, only children enjoy drama more than their classmates with larger families. Perhaps being deprived of sibling squabbles for years left them craving a college experience rife with social turmoil — or at the very least, a little excitement. It’s not clear whether they enjoy witnessing drama or being entangled in it themselves; nonetheless, we can safely disregard the stereotype that only children are shy and unsociable (at least at UVA).

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For our final bit of analysis, we asked whether birth order affects UVA students’ future preferences for children. By definition, middle children belong to families with three or more kids, while only children are siblingless. Given that middle and only children had the highest and lowest averages respectively, it seems that UVA students hope to one day have families that resemble those they grew up in.

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While birth order certainly can’t predict your future with 100% accuracy, it’s clear that your placement within the family plays a significant role in shaping your behavior — even after you’ve left the nest.