Born to be number one, or is second actually the best?1 Opinion
There are many theories surrounding the development of personality. The Biological Approach to personality suggests that genetics are responsible, with a well researched link between genetics and personality traits (Eysenck, 1967).
Behavioural theories associate personality characteristics with the individual and their interaction with the environment; focusing on learning stemming from increased behaviours that have positive consequences (Skinner, 1935).
Trait theorists assume that individuals each possess particular personality traits to either a greater or lesser degree. A trait remains stable over time, across a wide diversity of environmental and social situations and can cause individuals to behave in different ways. The five factor theory of personality suggests there are five basic dimensions of personality, Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness and Neuroticism (OCEAN), referred to as the “Big 5” personality traits (McCrae & John, 1992).
The importance of free will surrounds the Humanistic Approach to personality, involving individuals making conscious decisions and not being controlled by a past history of reinforcement, punishment or repressed trauma. In this view, individuals are responsible for their lives and have the freedom to change their behaviour (Maslow, 1943; Maslow, 1954).
Last but not least is the Psychodynamic Approach. The Psychodynamic Approach, by far the most awkwardly amusing approach, is heavily influenced by the likes of Sigmund Freud, who placed large emphasis on a sexual drive and unconscious thoughts (Freud, 1954; Freud, 1989). Freud suggested three main aspects of personality known as the id, the ego and the superego, all fighting for satisfaction of needs and urges whilst being moral and conforming to social ideals.
Developing on from Freudian work, Alfred Adler emphasised an approach that focuses on the social world and its influence on personality development (Adler, 1931). An interesting perspective placed upon personality development is birth order, Adler being the first psychologist to theorise the effects of birth order on personality development (Adler, 1927; Adler, 1956). It is suggested that the order in which an individual is born (first born, middle child, third born etc.) has a great impact upon their personality.
An early study exploring the relationship between birth order and vocational interest, provided results showing that first born children responded more positively to academic activities, whereas later born children had one specific occupational preference, athletics (Bryant, 1987).
Theroux, (1993), produced findings suggesting that later born children cultivate athletic ability as a counter to first born ‘academic primogeniture’, which reflects the tendency of first born children to occupy the family niche of the achievement orientated sibling. Within sport, there are times when risks have to be taken, and with risk taking comes the confidence to do so. Later born children have been shown to engage in sports high in risk taking compared to first borns (Sulloway & Zweigenhaft).
However, Sulloway, (1996), asserts that first born children are more achievement-orientated, self confident and organised, and more likely to affiliate under stress. Leman, (2009) also suggests that first born children are more likely to be high achievers, perfectionists, hard driving, well organised, and more motivated to achieve compared to later born children. These characteristics are some that would typically be associated with individuals taking part in sport.
In a review study by Eckstein et al., (2010), 200 published articles with statistically significant findings of birth order characteristics, found typical characteristics associated with the individual’s specific birth order position. First born children were found be to high achievers, highly motivated and have high self esteem, qualities of which are favourable when being involved in sport.
More recently, athletes representing 34 sports were assessed in a study exploring birth order and sport expertise development (Hopwood, Baker, MacMahon & Farrow, 2010). Findings showed that elite athletes were more likely to be later-born children, while pre-elite and non-elite athletes were more likely to be first born children. In terms of athletics, later born children were more likely to be successful.
Interestingly, later born children have also been shown to have lower anxiety compared to first born children. Flowers & Brown, (2002), sought to examine the perceived level of cognitive and somatic anxiety before a competitive event in athletes competing in the 1500m and the 4 x 100m relay. First born athletes reported significantly higher cognitive and somatic state-anxiety compared to later born athletes.
Research surrounding the notion of birth order and its influence upon personality is equivocal. Recent literature suggests that first borns are more highly motivated and more likely to achieve, however, in a sporting context it has been shown that later born children are more successful and have a preferential occupation of athletics.
And of course, all these characteristics are influenced by other environmental, social and genetic factors, with birth order being a relatively small influence on personality in the grand scheme of things. It does however, offer an interesting insight and different perspective into the influence of birth order on sporting success.
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Tags:AchievementAnxietyBiological TheoryConfidenceExerciseExercise PsychologyFreudian TheoryIntrinsic MotivationMotivationPerformancePersonalityPersonality TheoriesPsychodynamic ApproachPsychology of SportSport PsychologySports PsychologyTrait Theory
About Sarah Griffiths
BSc Sport Science graduate, MSc Psychology graduate, MSc Sport and Exercise Psychology at UCLAN. Athlete and coach at Leigh Harriers Athletics Club.