Why is this interesting? - The Oldest Child Edition

On birth order, personality, and the stories we tell ourselves about our kids

Noah here. I have two kids, and ever since my youngest was born last year I’ve caught myself making the same mistake over and over again. That is, I’m constantly surprised by how different she is from her little sister. It’s a mistake because it’s an absolutely ridiculous thing to expect. For one, despite having the same stock, they surely received a massively different combination of genes. And while my knowledge of DNA extends only to what I learned in 10th grade biology, I have a sister and know lots of other sets of siblings, and none of them are exactly the same. So why do I keep failing this very basic logic puzzle?

There’s surely a sample size bias at play and probably some anchoring on the first born. The whole thing is well-explained by this quote from an excellent Guardian piece on the parenting industry from last year: “Parenting experts who are childless, such as the ‘queen of routine’ Gina Ford, author of the unavoidable Contented Little Baby series, attract a lot of sharp words for it, but this seems unfair. Where Ford has direct experience of parenting none of the 130 million babies born on Earth each year, most gurus only have direct experience of parenting two or three babies, which isn’t much better as a sample size. The assumption that whatever worked for you will probably work for everyone, which is endemic in the self-help world, reaches an extreme in the pages of baby books.”

What’s more, because I have two girls I frequently run into other parents with a boy and a girl explaining their genders as the source of behavioral differences. When I offer up a similar story amongst my daughters, things shift to birth order. It seems to me the most likely answer is that we’re all just unique and we should be less surprised that our children follow in our evolutionary footsteps.

Why is this interesting?

As a curious person, I dug into some of the research around birth order effects and found that there’s very little data to back up the idea that nearly all of us subscribe to in one way or another. A set of meta-studies in 2015 effectively put the idea to rest: “The results show that birth order has null effects on personality across the board, with the exception of intelligence and self-reported intellect, where firstborns have slightly higher scores. When combined, the two studies provide definitive evidence that birth order has little or no substantive relation to personality trait development and a minuscule relation to the development of intelligence.”

The question, then, is why are we so attracted to the idea. The same PNAS article offers up a few answers, including a compelling argument about the role of age:

Third, and possibly most interestingly, birth order is an idea that will probably never go away entirely because of its perfect confounding with age. This means that almost everyone has direct experience in which they see older children, who are firstborn, acting and behaving differently than younger children, who are laterborn. Because people are susceptible to weighing anecdotal information more heavily than data-driven findings (15), there will always be a tendency to think that birth-order effects exist because they will be confused with age differences.

Trying to interpret your child’s behavior seems like a fundamental truth of parenting. The problem is that those interpretations can, in turn, impact your own behavior and create whole new loops. So while an idea like the linkage between birth order and personality can seem largely innocuous, it’s part of a much bigger and more fundamental challenge of parenting: how to avoid pushing your own insecurities, beliefs, and biases on your kids. While I’m pretty new at this and can’t claim to know all the answers (n=2), I figure digging into the data when in doubt is never a bad plan. (NRB)

Thing of the Day:

WITI are fans of Sam Valenti’s record label, Ghostly. In addition to putting out amazing music consistently for 20 years (!), the amount of visual artists that the label has championed is second to none. Have a scroll through their work here and pay particular attention to the paper masterworks of Matthew Shlian, the mega modern compositions of Sougwen Chung, and also some iconic Audion covers, done by friend of WITI, the LA-based multimedia artist and thinker Will Calcutt. Check his now-classic Art Directors Club talk here.(CJN)

Also, the track sounds like its artwork than anything I’ve ever seen.

Quick Links:

  • Speaking of parents putting their own biases on their kids, it turns out there’s not much evidence for kids going on a sugar high. “The concept of the sugar high is something of a parenting urban legend; plenty of research has shown that feeding kids sugar doesn’t make them hyper. What it does do, though, is prime their parents to look for signs of misbehavior.” (NRB)

  • New Yorker editor David Remnick on NBA broadcaster Doris Burke: “It is 2019 and cheerleaders are still a thing in the National Basketball Association. The Chicago Luvabulls. The Memphis Grizz Girls. The Charlotte Honey Bees. And this is the N.B.A., the most progressive league in professional sports, with the most enlightened commissioner. The good news is that the best broadcaster in the game is Doris Burke. This has been the case now for years. There is no one remotely close.” Previous mention: WITI 5/24, The Westbrook Edition. (NRB)

  • As we’ve mentioned previously (WITI 5/22 & WITI 6/13), we’re both watching this 5G/Huawei story closely. Here’s Bloomberg on Huawei using their patent portfolio as a weapon: “Huawei holds 56,492 active patents on telecommunications, networking and other high-tech inventions worldwide, according to Anaqua’s AcclaimIP.And it’s stepping up pursuit of royalties and licensing fees as its access to American markets and suppliers is being restricted.” (NRB)

Thanks for reading,

Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN)