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Primed for success – are firstborn children really smarter?

Recent studies have thrown this theory into doubt

For many years, psychologists have labelled the firstborn as the most intelligent in the family, the middle child as the most sociable and the youngest as the rebel. The results of a combined study by Mainz and Leipzig universities have challenged the traditional view of birth order and relative intelligence.

What is significant is that unlike early studies, data was collected from a large group of approximately 20,000 participants from across the US, Germany and the UK. Those questioned ranged in age from 18 to 98.

The earliest known investigation was not representative of the general population, given that it concentrated its data on the responses of firstborn male scientists; in addition, birth order studies have always been based upon testing an individual’s IQ. Participants were asked typically academic questions to test their mathematical, scientific and linguistic abilities.

The new study has thrown a spanner in the works. Whilst it reveals that firstborn children are on average slightly more intelligent than their siblings, it challenges our interpretation of the true meaning of intelligence. As the study asked questions beyond intelligence research, and the large number of participants ranged from the old to the young, the results are considered more credible.

Being clever is not simply a matter of academic intellect. Intelligence can be measured by studying an individual’s degree of extroversion, emotional stability, tolerance and conscientiousness.

Employers have in recent years applied psychometric testing to recruit those with the most suitable skills, thus acknowledging the shift from selecting recruits simply on the basis of being top of the class.

The new study recognised that our understanding of intelligence is more complex than getting top marks in an exam. An individual’s capacity to take new information on board, make sense of it, store it and then apply it in a useful way is equally valuable.

After analysis of the research data, psychologists determined that birth order played no significant effect on the level of intelligence in siblings.

It did, however, acknowledge the fact that the eldest plays the role of teacher to their siblings. This in itself poses cognitive demands. Children must remember what they have learned, store and structure it, and then find a comprehensible way to repeat it to younger brothers and sisters.

Results also suggested that firstborns fare better on the IQ measure as they are recipients of their parent’s undivided linguistic attention.

Siblings want to be equally noticed, however, wishing to be special and different and to carve their niche within the family unit. As a result, subsequent children often excel in music, sport or art, thus displaying their intellect in a different way.

Birth order and brains do not necessarily follow a pattern. If you are a firstborn, don’t be complacent; your younger brothers and sisters may just end up as your boss one day.

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