Why do children who grow up in the same household have different personalities?
I loved my older brother dearly when we were small, but I hated being compared to him! He was outgoing, confident and people were drawn to his general sunniness. But while I certainly looked up to him, I never yearned to be him. As an introvert, I was content with my own company and a stack of books.
So, if children have the same biological parents, and grow up in the same house, what can explain the differences in behavior, interests, abilities and social traits?
It’s an ongoing debate. Some people would argue that it’s our social environment and upbringing that has the most significant impact. Others insist it is the specific genes we inherit that dictate what we inevitably become. These opposing points of view are often referred to as the ‘nature versus nurture’ debate. This now-ubiquitous phrase was first coined in the 19th century. Sociologists began to use it shortly after the 1859 publication of The Origin of Species, Charles Darwin’s scientific work on evolution and natural selection. Growing interest in human development led to the first ever intelligence test being devised — one that would explore the roles of genetic inheritance and social environment in human behavior. While Darwin may well have been in a good position to contribute to the devising of these tests, his interests lay elsewhere, with his next literary sensation of being The Descent of Man.
But the intelligence tests still attracted a degree of public attention. Certain leading British sociologists used the test results (flawed though they may have been) to suggest that firstborn sons would always be more successful than their siblings. The reason for this, they said, was that it was traditional for firstborn sons to be handled the family fortune, and they would therefore receive more ‘parental investment’. This would have been a logical conclusion considering the social beliefs and practices of the time.
The Austrian psychiatrist Alfred Adler decided to investigate the nature versus nurture theory further, and concluded that a child’s personality is shaped largely by their chronological place in the family. He described firstborn children as being conscientious and high-achieving, but also having a competitive streak. This, according to Adler, is because parents are obsessed with each development milestone, fretting if one comes later than expected, which puts children under pressure to succeed. Middle children, meanwhile, will often become the family entertainer, always seeking recognition. They may also develop into mediators, using their natural empathy to resolve conflict. As for the youngest in the sibling hierarchy, Adler believed that as the ‘baby’, they will always be pampered, and so become dependent and manipulative, but also outgoing and charming. The familial environment, it seemed to him, was what counted most.
The rest is in the podcast down below!
Questions — Read/Listen. T/F/NG
- As a child, the writer wished she could be similar to her older brother.
- Charles Darwin was a contributor to the intelligence tests created by sociologists.
- The British sociologists ‘ beliefs about the treatment of firstborn sons made sense during the 19th century.
- Alfred Adler believed that youngest siblings would be least likely to succeed in life.
- Thomas Bouchard changed his opinion on the nature vs. nurture debate after meeting James Springer and James Lewis.
- Anais Bordier had always had the Instinctive feeling that she had a twin.
- Levels of wealth have an impact on the way different children develop.
- Beben Benyamin’s findings are inconclusive.