Birth Order and Its Impact on Achievement in Life

Nesting dolls lined up in order from biggest to smallest

A very good article published by Ronald Riggio, Ph.D., at challenges the idea that first born children usually end up high achievers. Riggio states,

It is important to also note that when we rely on our own experience, we are subject to what is called a confirmation bias.  If we believe that first borns are more driven, and thus more successful, we will search for and remember instances where a successful person was a first born, and not pay as much attention to, or forget, the fact that many successful persons were later born children.  As a result, it appears that the hypothesis – first borns are more successful – is confirmed by our own experience and observations.

Maybe there are birth order effects, but they have little to do with birth order per se.  Consider this: smaller families are able to concentrate more “resources” – money for private schools/tutors, computers, educational games – on fewer children.  So, again it’s a numbers game.  First borns not only get more attention from parents initially, but if in a small family, they don’t have to share as much of that attention with siblings.  And, with the trend toward smaller and smaller families, there are more of these types of first borns.  So, birth order effects may just be family size effects.

Riggo goes on to make the case that science has not conclusively determined that birth order has any profound or widespread impact on the development of personality, emotions, behavior or character.

If not birth order — then what determines these things? Both in and out of psychology, we hear the question all the time. What determines a person’s psychological make-up? Nature or nurture? In other words: Are people determined by biological and genetic factors? Or are people determined primarily by other people or situations in their environment — economic factors, interpersonal or family factors, and so forth?

The nature vs. nurture debate is revealing for what it leaves out: The impact of individual thinking, attitudes, deeper convictions and basic choices on the development of an individual life. When I first know somebody, I’m least interested in their biology, their family make-up or other external factors. I’m most interested in what they think, how they think, and the choices they have so far made in life. What people value tell you who they are, much more accurately and profoundly than what happened to them in the past.

Psychology ought to be studying core evaluations. Psychologist Edith Packer, Ph.D., defined core evaluations as the following, in her essay entitled, “Understanding the Subconscious.”

Core evaluations are basic conclusions, bottom-line evaluations, that we all hold subconsciously. These evaluations pertain to three fundamental areas of everyone’s life: self, reality, and other people. Some examples of core evaluations are: “I’m always on the outside looking in.” “People are such that sooner or later they will hurt me.” “Life is a power struggle, and, being weak, I will always be defeated.” “The real me is bad.” “Life does not hold the possibility of happiness for me.”

I’ve given you some mistaken core evaluations. Here are some correct ones: “People are not born good or bad. Each individual creates his own character and values. And that includes me.” “Values are achievable and happiness is possible.” “Life is an adventure.”

Correct core evaluations are ones which correspond to the fundamental facts of reality and as such provide an individual with a sound psychological framework for his development. By the same token, to the extent that a core evaluation is mistaken or irrational, it will cause and maintain psychological problems. I want to emphasize that such mistaken core evaluations are at the root of all defense mechanisms and most out-of-context emotions. They are the base of all neurosis.

In other words, it’s the way that we think that determines our basic personality make up, including the choices we make and the actions we take in daily life. Core evaluations are especially operative at key decision points in life. For example, when there’s a career opportunity to be taken or shaped, or rejected outright, a core evaluation could be the determining factor.

A person with a core evaluation along the lines of, “It doesn’t matter what I do in life. Ultimately, it’s not really important,” will make a different set of choices from someone who deeply feels, “Life matters. My life matters. I want to achieve something significant, and I can.”

We often overstate the role of family-of-origin when examining its impact on later life. Factors such as birth order may be relevant in how one views oneself within the context of one’s family-of-origin, particularly at the time one is growing up. But it’s a mistake to automatically assume this has relevance outside of the family. In fact, high-achievers — by definition — are people who tend to look beyond their particular family and community. They have their eyes on bigger matters, whether in business, science, athletics, entertainment or whatever field they choose for achievement. Study the lives and biographies of accomplished people, and this is a common denominator you’ll find. It’s of much more relevance than the order of birth.

A similar factor developing in psychology is the theory of core self-evaluations:

Core self-evaluations (CSE) represent a stable personality trait which encompasses an individual’s subconscious, fundamental evaluations about themselves, their own abilities and their own control. People who have high core self-evaluations will think positively of themselves and be confident in their own abilities. Conversely, people with low core self-evaluations will have a negative appraisal of themselves and will lack confidence. [See Journal of Applied Psychology 1998, Vol. 83, No. 1, Timothy Judge, Edwin Locke, Cathy Durham, Avraham Kluger.]

How you view yourself and life/existence in general are crucial in the kind of person you become. Most of these “evaluations” are not conscious. They are deeply implicit in our core emotions, the fundamental and basic way we respond to ourselves, life, existence, and all the things that go on around us (local or international.) One of the things I’m always saying to people is, “If you want to really know who you are, listen to your feelings. Your emotions tell you what’s really important — to you.”

This is not to imply that emotions are indicators of what truth, facts or logic actually are. Emotions are often simplistic condensations of complex thoughts, beliefs and attitudes. As Packer’s comments indicate, core emotional evaluations can be correct or incorrect, logically defensible or not. But emotions do tell you the truth about what you value, even if what you value might or might not be in your own best interest in every respect.

The concept of core self-evaluations was first examined by Judge, Locke, and Durham (1997) and involves four personality dimensions; locus of control, neuroticism, generalized self-efficacy, and self-esteem. The trait developed as a dispositional predictor of job satisfaction, but has expanded to predict a variety of other outcomes. Core self-evaluations are particularly important because they represent a personality trait which will remain consistent over time. Furthermore, the way in which people appraise themselves using core self-evaluations has the ability to predict positive work outcomes, specifically, job satisfaction and job performance. These relationships have inspired increasing amounts of research on core self-evaluations and suggest valuable implications about the importance this trait may have for organizations.

A central purpose of psychotherapy is to identify what you feel, specifically the kind of core evaluations you formed earlier in life, particularly in childhood and young adulthood. It’s important to understand how these core evaluations are determining not only your emotions, but your actions and most fundamental life choices over time. The point of studying your core evaluations, including ones formed in your past, is to identify their relevance and impact on your mind and actions today.

The purpose of this heightened self-awareness is not to frighten you, depress you or make “explanatory” excuses that will only paralyze you. The purpose of this self-awareness is to better understand what makes you tick, which core evaluations and life attitudes have advanced your interests and goals (career-wise and in relationships), and which core evaluations have undermined your life progress.

I have gone through this process with people as young as twenty and as old as eighty. It’s never too late (or too early) if you’re willing to look at yourself, not with fear and moralism, but with enlightenment and determination. We are, most fundamentally, what we think, assume and believe. And it’s possible — when necessary and desirable — to learn to think differently.

Be sure to “friend” Dr. Hurd on Facebook. Search under “Michael  Hurd” (Rehoboth Beach DE). Get up-to-the-minute postings, recommended articles and links, and engage in back-and-forth discussion with Dr. Hurd on topics of interest. Also follow Dr. Hurd on Twitter at @MichaelJHurd1