Born to Win? Thank Your Big Sister

3 min read · 9 years ago


If you have siblings, chances are that you're already familiar with
birth-order stereotypes: Older siblings are bossy and parental, while
younger siblings are spoiled and carefree. And only children? Yikes.
Don't even go there.

However, new research suggests that (in addition to perhaps
explaining some of your siblings' more annoying qualities) birth order
might have a significant impact on the way you tackle your work–and,
maybe, your success. A study
conducted by Bernd Carette, Frederik Anseel, and Nico Van Yperen for
Ghent University in Belgium examines the differences between first- and
second-born children and how they set and achieve goals.

Different Goals

The study found that first-born children are more likely to value
"mastery goals," which involve improving one's own performance at
certain tasks, while second-born children are more likely to focus on
"performance goals" and the pursuit of outperforming others.

The research team attributed this, in part, to their belief that
first-born children lack–for a time, at least–siblings with whom to be
compared. Therefore, parents are likely to gauge their first-born
child's progress against that child's own previous performance, setting
the stage for a self-referencing approach to goal achievement.

Parents frequently compare second-born children, on the other hand,
to their older siblings–a practice that encourages younger children to
reference themselves against others when evaluating their goals and

In other words, older siblings hold themselves to personalized
standards, while younger siblings base their standards off of the goals
of others around them.

“First-borns may be more motivated to learn, whereas second-borns may be more motivated to win,” conclude the authors.

Sibling Smackdown

That makes sense, right?

Only in a broad sense, says journalist and educational consultant Annie Murphy Paul.

"I'm skeptical in general of birth order theories. The best comment I
can remember reading about them is that, while one's position in the
family certainly does affect one's experiences growing up, it doesn't
affect personality or outlook in any predictable way," she wrote in a recent blog post.

Murphy Paul isn't alone. Deborah Tannen, author of You Were Always Mom's Favorite! Sisters in Conversation Throughout Their Lives,
expresses similar skepticism. She doesn't believe that siblings who are
self-referencing are any less competitive or likely to want to "win"
than those who compare themselves to other people.

"You could say that self-improvement is very self-referencing," she told Inc.,
"but then you think: Self-improvement to beat others is actually very
competitive." At some point, the desire to beat oneself intersects with
the desire to beat others.

So in a sibling smack-down between the oldest and youngest children,
who comes out on top? That may be impossible to say. There are so many
other factors, says Tannen.

"There is no question that birth order plays a large role, but it is
always going to interplay with gender, culture, personality–and all of
these other things," she says.

Really, she concludes, the personality traits typically associated
with either younger or older siblings are the result of differing levels
of responsibility in childhood.

Trying to raise a little entrepreneur in your footsteps? Take heed:
"Birth order [doesn't matter] so much as the responsibility and
expectations of behavior that are placed on kids," she says.

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