Saturday, August 28, 2004

Does Birth Order Influence Acceptance of New Ideas?

In the past I haven't paid much attention to theories about birth order and personality, mainly because the things I have read haven't matched with my own personal experiences. That is until I read recently about research by Frank Sulloway that was done back in 1996. Mr. Sulloway was examining the influences that affect people's acceptance of new and radical ideas.

He looked at variables such as:

age, gender, nationality, socioeconomic class, education, physical handicaps, religious and political attitudes, travel, parents' age at birth, birth order, number of siblings, attained awards and honors, date of conversion to the new theory, degree of previous contact with the leaders of the new theory and three independent measures of eminence.

After analyzing over one million data points, he found that birth order was the strongest factor in receptiveness to new theories. Sulloway's research showed that the liklihood of accepting a revolutionary idea is 3.1 times greater in laterborns than in firstborns. This increases to 4.7 times greater for very radical new theories. Sulloway noted that "the likelihood of this happening by chance is virtually nil."

Interesting, isn't it? This research was done on receptivity to new scientific theories but I wonder if it extends to more mundane things like openness to new ideas in the workplace. Are firstborns less likely to embrace change or take risks than laterborns?

Here's how researchers explain the reasons for this difference. Firstborns receive more attention from their parents than laterborns. This parental attention includes rules for rewards and punishment. This reward system reinforces firstborns obedience to authority and acceptance of the "right way" to think. In other words, the firstborns learn to think the way authority figures want them to and not to stray too far into new and radical thought.

Laterborns on the other hand generally have more freedom and therefore less indoctrination and obedience to authorities. Laterborns also have to compete with their older, more powerful siblings for attention. This results in laterborns becoming adept at seeking out alternative methods to achieve their parent's attention. This is said to explain why laterborns are more likely to go into less traditional careers than firstborns.

Makes sense.

PS. In case you are wondering about only children, the research showed them as being somewhere between firstborns and laterborns in their support for radical theories.

Beth C.

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