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Born to Win? Thank Your Big Sister

New research suggests birth order may determine how you tackle goals. Does that mean one sibling will come out on top? Mom and Dad aren't taking sides.

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If you have siblings, chances are that you're already familiar with birth-order stereotypes: Older siblings are bossy and parental, while younger siblings are spoiled and carefree. And only children? Yikes. Don't even go there.

However, new research suggests that (in addition to perhaps explaining some of your siblings' more annoying qualities) birth order might have a significant impact on the way you tackle your work--and, maybe, your success. A study conducted by Bernd Carette, Frederik Anseel, and Nico Van Yperen for Ghent University in Belgium examines the differences between first- and second-born children and how they set and achieve goals.

Different Goals

The study found that first-born children are more likely to value "mastery goals," which involve improving one's own performance at certain tasks, while second-born children are more likely to focus on "performance goals" and the pursuit of outperforming others.

The research team attributed this, in part, to their belief that first-born children lack--for a time, at least--siblings with whom to be compared. Therefore, parents are likely to gauge their first-born child's progress against that child's own previous performance, setting the stage for a self-referencing approach to goal achievement.

Parents frequently compare second-born children, on the other hand, to their older siblings--a practice that enourages younger children to reference themselves against others when evaluating their goals and performance.

In other words, older siblings hold themselves to personalized standards, while younger siblings base their standards off of the goals of others around them.

“First-borns may be more motivated to learn, whereas second-borns may be more motivated to win,” conclude the authors.

Sibling Smackdown

That makes sense, right?

Only in a broad sense, says journalist and educational consultant Annie Murphy Paul.

"I'm skeptical in general of birth order theories. The best comment I can remember reading about them is that, while one's position in the family certainly does affect one's experiences growing up, it doesn't affect personality or outlook in any predictable way," she wrote in a recent blog post.

Murphy Paul isn't alone. Deborah Tannen, author of You Were Always Mom's Favorite! Sisters in Conversation Throughout Their Lives, expresses similar skepticism. She doesn't believe that siblings who are self-referencing are any less competitive or likely to want to "win" than those who compare themselves to other people.

"You could say that self-improvement is very self-referencing," she told Inc., "but then you think: Self-improvement to beat others is actually very competitive." At some point, the desire to beat oneself intersects with the desire to beat others.

So in a sibling smack-down between the oldest and youngest children, who comes out on top? That may be impossible to say. There are so many other factors, says Tannen.

"There is no question that birth order plays a large role, but it is always going to interplay with gender, culture, personality--and all of these other things," she says.

Really, she concludes, the personality traits typically associated with either younger or older siblings are the result of differing levels of responsibility in childhood.

Trying to raise a ittle entrepreneur in your footsteps? Take heed: "Birth order [doesn't matter] so much as the responsibility and expectations of behavior that are placed on kids," she says.

IMAGE: Getty Images
Last updated: Feb 13, 2013

FRANCESCA FENZI reports on entrepreneurship, technology and small business news from San Francisco. Her work has previously appeared in TIME, USA Today, Pop City and The Northside Chronicle.
@FrancescaFenzi




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