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Birth Order Theory - What is it?



Personality Reports  » Psychology

Birth Order Psychology:

The Basics &

Insights from Alfred Adler's "Individual Psychology"

Birth Order Psychology is a fascinating field of study that examines how an individual's position within their family can influence their personality, behavior, and life experiences.

Alfred Adler (1870-1937), an Austrian psychiatrist, first popularized the concept of Birth Order Theory as part of his more encompassing theory of "Individual Psychology".

Adler's work emphasizes the significance of birth order in shaping a person's character and their interactions within the family and society.

He was a contemporary of Sigmund Freud and a founding member of the Psychoanalytic Movement. However, Adler's theories diverged from Freud's emphasis on the unconscious mind and instead focused on social factors and the individual's striving for significance.

Adler believed that an individual's behavior and personality are shaped by their efforts to overcome feelings of inferiority and to strive for superiority and success in life.

In a nutshell, Adler believed that individuals consciously strive to carve out their own unique space in this world, and it starts with Birth Order, where one is first tasked to find their own unique identity within the Family Constellation or the "Family Dynamic".

Key Concepts of Birth Order Psychology:

  1. First Borns: Firstborn children hold a unique position in the family as the first to receive their parents' undivided attention. Adler posited that firstborns often develop a sense of responsibility, striving for perfection, and a desire to maintain their position of authority. They may exhibit traits such as conscientiousness, leadership qualities, and a strong need for approval. Firstborns are accustomed to being the center of attention until the arrival of siblings, which can shape their approach to relationships and achievement.

  2. Middle Borns: Middle children face the challenge of finding their own identity within the family dynamic. Adler suggested that Middleborns often develop flexible and adaptable personalities, honing their negotiation and peacemaking skills to foster harmony among siblings. Middleborns may exhibit traits such as diplomacy, sociability, and a knack for compromise. They are inclined to navigate between the older and younger siblings, often striving for fairness and balance.

  3. Last Borns: The youngest, or Last children often enjoy a more relaxed and indulgent upbringing, as their parents have already experienced the challenges of raising older siblings. Adler proposed that Lastborns may develop outgoing, creative, and attention-seeking personalities. They may exhibit traits such as charm, humor, and a tendency to rely on others for support. Lastborns often experience the benefits of being doted upon, which can shape their perception of the world and influence their interactions with others.

  4. Only Children: Only children, lacking siblings, grow up without the direct influence of birth order dynamics. Adler suggested that only children may exhibit a combination of firstborn and youngest child characteristics. They tend to mature quickly, develop independence, and possess a strong drive for achievement. Only children are often comfortable in adult company, which can contribute to their self-assurance and independence. 

These primary archetypes can be further shaped by various factors such as the distance in age between siblings, gender differences, and the number of children in the family. For instance, an Older Brother of Sisters (O-BOS) does not have the same competitive dynamics that an Older Brother of Brothers (O-BOB) would experience.  

For more information, visit our Birth Order FAQ's.


More on Adler

Individual Psychology

Alfred Adler's contributions extend beyond birth order psychology. His 'Individual Psychology' emphasized the holistic nature of an individual, considering the interplay between their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors in the context of their social environment. Adler proposed that every individual possesses a unique style of life, shaped by their subjective interpretations of their experiences and their goals for personal growth.

He emphasized the importance of understanding an individual's subjective perspective and the meanings they attach to their experiences.

Adler also introduced the concept of "inferiority complex," suggesting that individuals may develop feelings of inadequacy or inferiority due to various factors such as birth order, physical limitations, or early childhood experiences. These feelings of inferiority can drive individuals to compensate by striving for superiority, success, or recognition.

Furthermore, Adler highlighted the significance of social interest, the innate drive within individuals to connect with and contribute to the welfare of others. He believed that a strong sense of social interest leads to healthier relationships, personal fulfillment, and overall well-being.


Other notable contributors to 

Birth Order Psychology

Besides Alfred Adler, several other psychologists have contributed to the field of birth order psychology and provided support for its principles. While there may be varying perspectives and interpretations, these psychologists have recognized the potential impact of birth order on personality development. Here are a few notable psychologists who have explored birth order psychology:

  1. Frank Sulloway: Frank Sulloway, an American psychologist and science historian, conducted extensive research on birth order effects. His book "Born to Rebel" (1996) proposed that birth order influences personality traits and political attitudes. Sulloway suggested that firstborns tend to be more traditional and conformist, while laterborns exhibit greater openness to new experiences and a willingness to challenge the status quo.

  2. Judith Rich Harris: Judith Rich Harris, an American psychologist and author, offered a different perspective on birth order effects in her book "The Nurture Assumption" (1998). Harris argued that birth order has minimal direct impact on personality, emphasizing instead the importance of peer and social influences in shaping a person's development. While her views challenged traditional birth order theories, her work highlighted the complexity of factors involved in shaping personality.

  3. Catherine Salmon and Katrin Schumann: Catherine Salmon, a psychologist, and Katrin Schumann, a writer, co-authored the book "The Secret Power of Middle Children" (2011). Their work focused specifically on middleborn children and highlighted the unique traits and experiences associated with this birth order position. They explored the potential advantages and challenges faced by middleborns and highlighted their adaptability, negotiation skills, and ability to bridge gaps between siblings.

  4. Raymond Cattell: Raymond Cattell, a British-American psychologist, conducted research on personality traits and developed the 16 Personality Factors (16PF) model. While not solely focused on birth order, Cattell's work acknowledged the potential influence of birth order on certain personality dimensions, such as dominance and social assertiveness.

It's important to note that birth order psychology remains a topic of ongoing debate among psychologists, and not all researchers fully support its premises. The influence of birth order on personality is complex and can be influenced by various factors, including cultural and environmental differences. Nevertheless, the contributions of these psychologists have expanded our understanding of birth order effects and provided valuable insights into the potential impact of sibling relationships on individual development.


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