June 1, 2001 COLUMBUS, Ohio - A child's place in the family birth order may play a role in the type of occupations that will interest him or her as an adult, new research suggests.
In two related studies, researchers found that only children - and to a certain extent first-born children - were more interested in intellectual, cognitive pursuits than were later-born children. In contrast, later-born children were more interested in both artistic and outdoors-related careers.
These results fit into theories that say our place in family birth order will influence our personality, said Frederick T.L. Leong, co-author of the study and professor of psychology at Ohio State University.
"Parents typically place different demands and have different expectations of children depending on their birth order," Leong said.
"For example, parents may be extremely protective of only children and worry about their physical safety. That may be why only children are more likely to show interest in academic pursuits rather than physical or outdoor activities. In addition, those who are an only child will tend to get more time and attention from their parents than children with siblings."
Leong conducted the study with Paul Hartung of the Northeastern Ohio Universities College of Medicine; David Goh of Queens College, City University of New York; and Michael Gaylor of the Dartmouth Medical School. Their results were published in a recent issue of the Journal of Career Assessment.
In one study, the researchers gave questionnaires to 159 medical students that measured their vocational personality types, occupational interests and values. While the students in this study had already chosen a career path, Leong said the focus of this study was to measure interest in various types of careers and the relationship between birth order and those measured career interests.
The second study included 119 undergraduate students majoring in a wide variety of academic fields at a Midwestern university.
One of the strongest findings was the fact that only children and first-born children tended to have more cognitive and analytical interests, while later-borns were more artistic and oriented to the outdoors.
"Parents of only children may discourage pursuit of physical or outdoor activities because they are more fearful of physical harm to the child," Leong said.
Parents may also encourage only or first-born children to pursue interests that could lead to a prestigious career like lawyer or doctor, he explained. That may be why later-born children are more likely to show interests in artistic careers.
"As they have more children, parents tend to become more open and relaxed, and that may allow younger children to be more risk-taking," Leong said. "If the first-born or only child wants to be a poet, that may concern parents. But by the fourth child, parents may not mind as much."
Leong said the biggest differences in the study were between only children and later-born children. First-born children are difficult to classify because they start out as only children, but later give up that position. It may be that the length of time a first-born child is an "only" child makes a difference in his or her personality.
"Our sample size wasn't large enough to get a good picture of first-borns," he said. "My guess is that they would fall somewhere between the onlies and the later-borns. They may not be as artistic as later-borns and not quite as cognitively-oriented as only children."
According to Leong, "this study suggests that it may be useful for career counselors to pay some attention to the birth order of their clients."
Leong said research into birth order fell out of favor for many years when the field became dominated by pop psychology that was not academically rigorous. However, recently there has been new interest in research that examines how family dynamics, including birth order, affects personality.
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