Are you born to lead — literally? Primogeniture, the tradition of having the firstborn legitimate son inherit the family throne (or business), institutionalized the idea that certain people are predestined to be leaders. Richard Branson, J.K. Rowling, and Winston Churchill are among famous first-born children.
Now, there’s a new study that backs that up the theory that there’s a connection between birth order and leadership. Looking at decades of Swedish male population data and military enlistment evaluations, the National Bureau of Economic Research found that birth order affected Swedish men’s occupations at age 45: firstborn children were 30% more likely to become top managers, while later-born children were more likely to become self-employed.
Firstborns are born managers
In the study, personality traits determined later occupations. Examining Swedish government-mandated military evaluations, the researchers found that eldest children were “more emotionally stable, persistent, socially outgoing, willing to assume responsibility, and able to take initiative than later-borns.” Firstborns were also more likely to be employed in occupations that required all five domains of personality for success: “openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and emotional stability.”
Above all, firstborns in the NBER study showed higher levels of openness and conscientiousness. Birth order was also affected by gender composition. Brothers shaped behavior in boys more than sisters. If the younger boy had older brothers, the personality effects of birth order were more than twice as large compared to if he had sisters.
Only children are creative loners
A different new study on siblings came to similar conclusions on psychological differences. Comparing only children with children who had siblings in China, researchers found that only children had higher levels of creativity and lower levels of agreeableness.
It showed in their brain scans: Only children had higher levels of grey matter volume, a brain region linked to imagination and creativity. But only children also had less grey matter in the medial prefrontal cortex, a brain region where your mind thinks about how it relates to others. Researchers speculated that only children may get more attention from parents, which is great for fostering imagination, but they also may get less social practice, which is why they may on average feel less concern for others.
Are parents to blame?
The NBER researchers found that nurture played just as much a role as nature. Using a survey of Swedish 13-year-old boys and their parents, they found that parents were less likely to discuss school work with later-born children. That might be why firstborn Swedish teenagers were more likely to read books and spend more time on their homework. But the researchers also acknowledged that sibling rivalry or limited parental resources could also be factors.
There are a variety of biological and environmental factors at play when you’re born that determine the person you’re going to be. Anyone who has felt middle-child syndrome already knows this.
But don’t despair, later-borns. You can overcome the sibling pecking order and find success. Famous middle children like Bill Gates and Abraham Lincoln overcame biological destiny to become the leaders they were and are today.