Why the fascination with birth order?

Published: Tuesday, Feb. 5 2013 4:26 p.m. MST

Tracy Repchuk (middle) and her husband, of Burbank, Ca., have consciously worked to avoid placing their children, Kennedy, 17, Celeste, 16 and Caleb, 15, into stereotypical birth order roles. "I think if there ever is a stereotypical onset, it is due to the parenting styles that have lasted for generations," Repchuk told the Deseret News.

Tracy Repchuk

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The sun is setting against the Verdugo Hills in Burbank, Calif., as Tracy Repchuk and her husband, Dave, head toward the door to finally go see that new movie. Though the firstborn is generally the child in charge when parents go out, Tracy asks her second child, Celeste, to take charge because she is just as capable and perhaps more in need of learning how to take on responsibility.

“Take dinner out of the oven in 10 minutes,” she reminds Celeste before kissing the children goodbye.

A recent study published in the Journal of Research in Personality suggests that firstborns may be more motivated to learn, whereas secondborns may be more motivated to win. While just one droplet in a vast pool of research revolving around the science of birth order, the study is among the most downloaded articles of the journal. That attention to this research raises the question about the fixation many have with the science of birth order and the validity behind it.

"A lot of focus has been placed on birth order, primarily because patterns are repeated from generation to generation," Repchuk told the Deseret News. "But I believe if each child is treated precisely as an individual, the traits of the individual will come to light."

Myth or science?

The validity of the science of birth order itself remains contentious, said Toni Falbo, professor of educational psychology at the University of Texas.

Most of the variants or factors that contribute to any particular outcome at any one time — such as socioeconomic status or health — are outside of birth order, said Falbo. "These are sorts of issues that have more direct connections to outcomes than whether you were second of three."

The study — which examined almost 400 students — found that birth order can be a lens through which first and secondborns see the world differently in ways that impact their motivation and likelihood of career and personal success, though the roles often can be reversed with patience and practice.

The findings emerge across and within families, Bernd Carette, an author of the study and psychologist in Belgium, told the Deseret News.

The intrigue

Today, personality tests are a "startling ubiquitous" part of American life, Annie Murphy Paul wrote in "The Cult of Personality."

From employee screening procedures to online dating advice, personality testing is a $400 million industry that is expanding by nearly 10 percent every year, accounting for nearly 17.5 million people per year, according to the Myers-Briggs test and the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory.

Why do we obsess over birth order?

"Personality tests all make the same promise: to reduce our complicated, contradictory, changeable selves to a tidy label," Paul said. "These tests claim to measure not what we know, but what we're like; not what we can do, but who we are."

Everyone is looking for their place in life and wondering where they fit in, Susan Newman, social psychologist in New Jersey, told the Deseret News. Personality tests and birth order books are just one more way for people to do so.

"Most tests have positive aspects, no matter what you check," Newman said. "It's ego-feeding."

For Falbo, it isn't difficult to understand the intrigue behind the science of birth order. The majority of people today have siblings and are aware of the influence of those they grew up with, Falbo said. People want to look at these tables, find themselves within the table and plot out the trajectory.

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