Monday, November 9, 2015
Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.
Just last week I saw an item in a national newspaper, on a topic which I thought had died the death years ago.
It’s the old chestnut about tracing personality traits to the order in which people are born into a family.
I’m sure you’ve heard this (or something like it) before. Elder (and especially eldest) siblings are supposed to be dominant, conservative, controlling, perhaps authoritarian because (says this theory) when they are children they have to take the responsibility for organising and looking after their younger siblings.
Younger siblings (says this same theory) are supposed to be more frivolous or more easy-going or – if their eldest siblings are too controlling – more rebellious and hence more creative
Time and again I have seen this theory buttressed with the citation of well-known names from history, politics and the arts and sciences, who are said to fit the pattern.
I have always been extremely sceptical of this theory, regardless of the numbers of illustrious names that have been thrust at me. I’m sure that how one relates to one’s siblings (older or younger) will have much to do with the sort of person one grows up to be. The order of one’s birth might have some influence on one’s personality. But there are too many variables for the theory to hold much water. What about race, culture, ethnicity? What about specific and individual genetic inheritance? What about wealth and poverty and social class? What about the size of the family? The inter-sibling dynamics of a family with three children would be quite different from the inter-sibling dynamics of a family with seven or eight children. Birth-order as a determinant of personality is only one factor among others, and this being so, most analyses of personality based upon it are rendered null and void.
On top of this, the theory seems to rely on a dated conception of a large family where elder children spend much of their time looking after younger ones.
Besides, having observed a number of families myself, I have found many that contradict the elder-authoritarian, younger-rebellious dichotomy. I know one family where the eldest (male) sibling is far from being the siblings’ alpha-male and is more put-upon than putting. I know another where the eldest sibling (female) is a prize bossy-boots as per the theory, but is politely ignored by her younger siblings who have never allowed themselves to be bossed.
So, returning to the article I saw in the press this week, I noted with a sigh of contentment that “experts” now say birth-order really has little to do with the type of person one grows up to be. Early theories that said otherwise were based upon limited data and the notorious confirmation bias.
Just when I was feeling comfortable with this, however, the article ended by annoying me. The same sociological “experts” have now decided that birth-order has something to do with intelligence. They claim that the eldest offspring of most families will score most highly on any IQ test, with each successive child performing at one IQ point lower than the one before. Now, being the youngest child of a family which (in New Zealand demographic terms) is abnormally large, I take this personally. I am the seventh of seven. I know for a fact that whereas I am a universal genius (as you will know from reading this blog each week), my eldest siblings are drivelling idiots hardly capable of speaking a coherent word or framing a sound argument. My wife and I have an even more abnormally large family in New Zealand demographic terms. We have eight children, and I have yet to note any significant dip in intelligence between the 40-year-old eldest and the 17-year-old youngest.
An evil suspicion comes to my mind. Is this new theory yet another example of the ongoing eugenics campaign to persuade people to have fewer children? (“Don’t have any more children or they’ll get progressively stupider!!”) Whether my suspicion is correct or not, I do not doubt that in another few years there will be another, and equally inaccurate, sociological theory about siblings and I will give another contemptuous laugh.
I close with authentic photos of my elder siblings and the type of care they are receiving.