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Firstborn Girls Most Likely to Succeed

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Hillary Clinton

Hillary Clinton is an example of a high-achieving firstborn. Credit: SEIU Walk a Day In My Shoes 2008 via Wikimedia Commons

Bossy, know-it-all older sisters everywhere now have something else to lord over their younger siblings: Researchers have found that firstborn girls are the most ambitious and successful children in their families.

A slew of real life examples appear to back this up: Beyonce, Hillary Clinton, Oprah Winfrey and Sheryl Sandberg are all firstborns. Oldest children are 16 percent more likely to excel academically than younger siblings, according to scientists from the University of Essex in the U.K.

This is especially true for girls: eldest daughters are an additional four percent more likely to go on to higher education than eldest sons—the next most successful sibling type.

The influence of birth order on personality has long intrigued social scientists, but earlier studies supporting the superiority of firstborns have been criticized for flaws in their methodology. For example, previous studies mostly looked at average effects derived from large groups of people, so they could have missed more nuanced dynamics at play—such as the numbers of brothers and sisters in each family and the age spacing between siblings.

Lead researcher Feifei Bu and her colleagues tried to overcome such issues in their analysis of data from a British survey of families containing 1,503 sibling groups and 3,552 individuals. They used a particular statistical model that allowed them to examine subtle differences within and between families to see if they were more important than birth order. (They weren’t.)  In addition, the study excluded families with only one child and families with firstborn twins, whose unique experiences could skew the results.

Bu also found that oldest children in the survey are seven percent more ambitious than children born later, based on responses to a question about educational plans at age 13. The gender gap is also bigger for ambition: Firstborn girls are 13 percent more likely to aspire to higher education than firstborn boys. The results held up regardless of parents’ education and professional achievement levels.

As a firstborn girl myself, I can’t say I’m surprised. But before we chosen ones let this study go to our heads, Bu points out that the effect is probably more due to nurture than nature.

“There are several possible explanations for the higher attainment and ambition of the eldest,” Bu told The Guardian. “It could be that the parents simply devote more time and energy to them—it could be that they are actually more intelligent. For me, I tend to lean towards the theory that parental investment is possibly at work here.”

In characteristic fashion, she added, “I’m the firstborn, of course. That is why I’m doing a PhD.”

Firstborns may be successful because they suck up a greater share of their parents’ resources. Oldest children naturally get a period of exclusive attention simply by being first. And the special treatment continues even after other children arrive: Think about all the perks firstborns get to make sure they don’t feel upstaged by the new baby (I got a trip to Disney World when my sisters were born).

The extra attention may translate into greater intelligence. In a 2007 study, for example, firstborns scored about three points higher on IQ tests than their younger siblings. If the firstborn had died in childhood, however, the second born took on the mantle and scored as high as the true firstborns—suggesting that the difference in intelligence isn’t necessarily innate.

It’s not all bad news for younger siblings. Birth order expert and visiting professor at the University of California, Berkeley, Frank Sulloway has proposed that siblings compete for parental favor and investment by adopting different roles within the family. If the firstborn is the brain, the second child may be the sporty one or the actress. And in Bu’s study, the longer the spacing between kids in a family, the smaller the gap in siblings’ educational achievement.





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  1. 1. 14310024 3:33 am 05/2/2014

    This study shows that girl’s do indeed run the world, or more specifically, first born girls. It has proved that we are more ambitious and more likely to succeed than our siblings. This gives me hope that I will make it through my first year of varsity

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  2. 2. ramausci 4:55 pm 05/2/2014

    Alfred Adler even explained why – over 50 years ago. Works for oldest boys also. Nothing new here.

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  3. 3. vkint 4:03 am 05/3/2014

    Another aspect of the ‘nurture’ argument is the first born being the first to experience things. She had to go to school first and figure out how everything worked, without knowing that a sibling was there to provide advice, etc. The younger siblings always had the crutch of having a sibling there. Also, maybe there’s something specific to a female’s experience as being the first as opposed to a male.

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  4. 4. u14275172 5:19 am 05/3/2014

    What about going against the argument of Bu and questioning the difference between meals and females as due to nature rather than nurture?
    Having said that I take into consideration the fact that females are generally more intellectually mature than males, could this also be a reason that female firstborns are more likely to succeed than male firstborns.

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  5. 5. 14094674 11:57 am 05/3/2014

    As a first-born child myself, I can definitely agree with this article. I am far more motivated and ambitious than my younger brother. I care a lot more about my academic performance and my plans for the future. In terms of the nature vs nurture argument, though, I feel it is possibly a blend of the two. I do acknowledge that girls are supposed to be intellectually superior to boys, especially teenage boys, but there can also be no doubt that we have been treated differently. When I was in high school, one B in a maths test would cause my dad to fly off the handle. My younger brother nearly failed English last term and suddenly it was all “boys will be boys” and “perhaps we should give him a talk”. It certainly doesn’t seem fair, but I also know that I wouldn’t be where I am today without my parents constantly pushing me to do better. I’m not sure, though, whether my gender or being the oldest or both caused them to pressure me more than my brother. Either way, nurture definitely played a role. Parents do seem seem to be more protective of and put more pressure on girls in general, so perhaps a study should be done comparing same sex siblings with siblings of opposite sexes.
    14094674

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  6. 6. u14275172 1:36 pm 05/3/2014

    However not all firstborns acquire more physical resources than their younger siblings as compared to emotional attention. This said, isn’t it mostly due to the fact that most families progress over the years thus giving the latter siblings more availability to resources?

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  7. 7. Moipone 5:04 pm 05/3/2014

    I do agree to that, a simple example is the treatment that the first born gets on his/her first day in the first grade. A specially prepared lunch box, being delivered at school by the parent and above all, many pictures. Then when the others come, parents do not make it a big deal as they have been through that before. But I disagree to the fact that first born ‘girls’

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  8. 8. KChandrasekar3 12:50 am 05/4/2014

    If this is an indicator of ‘nuture’, it probably points to parental incompetence in raising the second child. In my case, me and my sister (younger) are both doing PhDs (to counter the author’s suggestion). I would say its because the eldest sibling is constantly reminded to be more responsible as soon as a younger child is born. An interesting comparison would be to look at success rates of people without siblings. If you stick to using exceptions (like Hillary Clinton and Oprah Winfrey, in this case), you will find many examples of successful men/women in a sinhle child household.

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  9. 9. u14275172 6:43 am 05/4/2014

    Does emotional attention which is given to firstborns also cause them to have a higher success rate when compared to their siblings; this rather than having more resources?

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  10. 10. zuzugirl 1:04 pm 05/4/2014

    I am raising an oldest daughter and am also one myself. The main difference I have noticed, which I sometimes feel guilty about as a Mother, is that I rely more on my eldest girl. True, she is ambitious and intelligent, but she also gets stuff done. If my hands are full and I ask her for help, she just does it. I don’t have to explain, like I would to her siblings. My Mother did the same to me. I believe that helped me grow up knowing I could do anything and that my help was valued by my Mom.
    She seems fearless to me and I admire that about her so much.
    Side note, both my siblings are smarter than me, but I always knew my Mother relied on me more. So there you go.

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  11. 11. TangoVera 3:44 pm 05/5/2014

    I wonder how this changes if the first daughter is not the first-born. I’m the second child, and the first girl, out of 4 children. Of my siblings I am the most-highly educated and the most ambitious. My older brother has zero ambition and barely finished college. It’s nteresting how these things play out.

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  12. 12. DrDaystrom 3:47 pm 05/5/2014

    Firstborns (male or female) are usually given more responsibility (and hence, early practice at being responsible lead-takers) because after the younger siblings start coming along, the older ones HAVE to help care for their ‘little’ sisters and brothers. This may or may not influence later life callings – many firstborns and older siblings go on to do – nothing – and statistically speaking that is probably more the norm.

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  13. 13. evelyn haskins 8:39 pm 05/5/2014

    So what will they discover next?

    The Wheel?

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  14. 14. hkraznodar 11:39 am 05/22/2014

    Please note that the study found a 16% difference. That means an 84% similarity. Your anecdotes are not statistically important nor are they science. A sixteen percent difference is significant but hardly universal. My own children worked out exactly opposite to the study because the younger is academically inclined and much more ambitious than the eldest. That does not invalidate the study.

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  15. 15. Brigitta 10:24 am 05/29/2014

    The firstborn effect doesn’t seem to be all nurture though, as the article suggests. I read an article a few years ago that stated that firstborns average a 3 point higher IQ to their second-born sibling. The difference between second and third-born siblings was 1 point.

    There seem to be other factors involved.

    A pregnancy takes a lot of nutrients from the mother, so the second time around she might be more depleted than with her first child, especially if child spacing is short.

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