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Astral Codex Ten Podcast

May 16, 2019

Psychologists are split on the existence of “birth order effects”, where oldest siblings will have different personality traits and outcomes than middle or youngest siblings. Although some studies detect effects, they tend to be weak and inconsistent.

Last year, I posted Birth Order Effects Exist And Are Very Strong, finding a robust 70-30 imbalance in favor of older siblings among SSC readers. I speculated that taking a pre-selected population and counting the firstborn-to-laterborn ratio was better at revealing these effects than taking an unselected population and trying to measure their personality traits. Since then, other independent researchers have confirmed similar effects in historical mathematicians and Nobel-winning physicists. Although birth order effects do not seem to consistently affect IQ, some studies suggest that they do affect something like “intellectual curiosity”, which would explain firstborns’ over-representation in intellectual communities.

Why would firstborns be more intellectually curious? If we knew that, could we do something different to make laterborns more intellectually curious? A growing body of research highlights the importance of genetics on children’s personalities and outcomes, and casts doubt on the ability of parents and teachers to significantly affect their trajectories. But here’s a non-genetic factor that’s a really big deal on one of the personality traits closest to our hearts. How does it work?

People looking into birth order effects have come up with a couple of possible explanations:

1. Intra-family competition. The oldest child choose some interest or life path. Then younger children don’t want to live in their older sibling’s shadow all the time, so they do something else.

2. Decreased parental investment. Parents can devote 100% of their child-rearing time to the oldest child, but only 50% or less to subsequent children.