Saturday, April 5, 2008

Born to irritate?

I am different from the other members of my family. There is no doubt about that. I have always assumed that this is because the circumstances of my birth were drastically different from those of my older brothers and sisters – quite simply, I have a different father from the siblings with whom I grew up.

I have always accepted, in an Adlerian sense, that my interpretation of the circumstances of my birth may have played a part in why I turned out so differently from my older siblings. But if Frank Sulloway is right, the differences between my siblings and myself may have more to do with our respective birth order. I am different because I was born later. This birth position, far more than the circumstances of my birth, help to explain why I have always had such difficulty painting within the lines.

Sulloway is much too intelligent a writer to ever lapse into implying causation. After all, this is the same mind that dissected Freud’s. And so he never actually says that birth order causes personality differences per se. Instead he maintains that certain aspects of personality that are under environmental control are strongly influenced by family niches. Birth order is a particularly significant niche, a stand-in for many of the patterns of family dynamics that end up shaping personality.

For example, because first-borns are necessarily bigger than their siblings, they become more effective at tactics that require size, aggression, and competition. First-borns become those “responsible achievers” who easily slip into the role of parent surrogates.

Second-born children naturally compete with first-borns. If they succeed, they try to out-do them. When they don’t – particularly in areas where size may be a disadvantage – they branch out and find new areas of success and achievement. To quote Sulloway, “if an elder brother is a great spear-thrower and a younger cannot top that, they might as well take up the bow and arrow. And if there is another older sibling already specializing in the bow and arrow, then it pays to invent the crossbow.” In other words, sibling rivalry is healthy and natural.

Sulloway argues that younger siblings are motivated to diversify. The impulse to do so is Darwinian, enhancing the family’s possibility of survival. He also explains why younger siblings are more likely to identify with democratic causes. Having grown up as underdogs, they are more likely to pursue egalitarian goals.

But perhaps Sulloway’s most radical conclusion was his statement that first-borns everywhere are more similar to each other than they are to other members of their own family. He arrived at this incredible conclusion based on his perusal of historical data as well as on his meta-analysis of the birth order literature. And this is true, he believes, at every level of the pecking order, such that last-born children share a personality trait of rebelliousness that is more akin to each other’s personality than it is to those with whom they share filial bonds. And middle children everywhere not only share the experience of feeling lost, neglected, and overlooked, but in doing so they too have more in common with other middle children than they do with blood siblings.

One of Sulloway’s biggest critics, Judith Rich Harris, concedes his point that birth order dynamics can be detected – but only within the context of the family-of-origin. She believes that these dynamics do not endure outside of the family. Sure, adult children may return home for Thanksgiving and end up slipping into old roles and grievances. But these dynamics do not result in indelible personality features evident in the way they relate to others outside of the family.

In other words, once we begin the process of separating and individuating from our family-of-origin, we blossom and try out new roles. Some of these other influences also help to shape our distinct personality. Indeed, Harris has provided conclusive evidence that the way people behave within their family has no correspondence on the way they act outside of it. She believes that birth order effects are figments of the imagination. Researchers keep finding them only because they keep looking for them.

Sulloway may be one of those researchers. And if he is right, then my personality is much more similar to younger children everywhere. Never mind my gender, culture, race, or the circumstances of my birth. Apparently I have more in common with irritating last-borns like Katie Couric, Jim Carrey and Jay Leno – than I do with the largely wonderful and accepting members of my own family. Imagine that.

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