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Alfred Adler Birth Order Research Papers

Studies indicate that family dynamics play an important role with regard to drug use and educational outcomes for youth (Allison, 1992; Bachman et. al., 2008; Bergen, Martin, Roeger, & Allison, 2005; Chilcoat, Dishion, & Anthony, 1995; Hill, Hawkins, Catalano, Abbott, & Guo, 2005; Yu, 2003). One theory developed by Alfred Adler attempts to understand how family matters by considering the order of when a child enters a family (Adler, 1964). Adler’s theory posits that different positions in a family birth order may be correlated both positive and negative life outcomes. For example, researchers have noted that first-born children have an increased susceptibility to both drug use as well as positive educational outcomes (Laird & Shelton, 2006). Though limited in scope, new studies have indicated that Adler’s theory may have relevance with other cultures. The first born son may have more positive life outcome expectations due to prevailing cultural sentiments, which includes decision making for the family (Galanti, 2003). Birth order status may also be affected by gender, for example, roles in the family may be correlated with birth order and with expectations of caregiving and/or decision making. For the purposes of this paper, we examined the influence of youth sex and birth order on drug use and education outcomes. We tested the Adlerian Individual Psychology theory to evaluate the importance of birth order and gender on education and whether or not youth had ever used cigarettes, alcohol, or marijuana with a sample of youths living in Santiago, Chile. Adlerian theory has not been widely applied to diverse populations, and none in South America, therefore this theoretical framework could illuminate how family characteristics impact culturally different populations.

Birth Order and Adlerian Theory

Alfred Adler “was the first to develop a comprehensive theory of personality, psychological disorders and psychotherapy, which represented an alternative to the views of Freud” (Adler, 1964, p. ix–x). One facet of his complex body of work involves the importance of birth order for youth outcomes. Adlerian Theory suggests that birth order and the number of siblings affect a child’s potential. Adler called upon the importance of understanding the “Family Constellation”:

“It is a common fallacy to imagine that children of the same family are formed in the same environment. Of course there is much which is the same for all in the same home, but the psychic situation of each child is individual and differs from that of others, because of the order of their succession” (Adler, 1964, p. 96).

Scholars have shown that both psychological and actual birth order impact individual outcomes. They note that “although researchers have examined the effects of birth order on intelligence, achievement, and personality, many of these studies have insuperable flaws, and the best work has produced weak or inconsistent results” (Freese & Powell, 1998, p. 57). Issues that arise include “methodological difficulties, the likelihood of very small effect sizes (if any), and the uncertain theoretical status of birth position” (Stagner, 1986, p. 377). Contrary to these findings, more recent work holds to the strength of birth order as an important factor associated with different outcomes, especially for first-born individuals. For example, Sulloway (1996) studied evidence that examined the question of why some individuals—for him revolutionary scientists—rebel and achieve remarkable breakthroughs in their fields (i.e., Darwin). In his book he developed a strong theoretical stance on how birth order influences children’s outcomes within families. Sulloway (1996) claims that birth order has been criticized unfairly due largely to methodological issues, His discussion takes into account family dynamics of age, gender, class, and wealth to support the conclusion that “siblings raised together are almost as different in their personalities as people from different families” (p. xiii). From this point of view, Sulloway goes on to develop a complex narrative that interweaves biological and social sciences to show how family and birth order impact children’s outcomes. However, other scholars have suggested that across many outcomes, variation between siblings may be greater than variation between families, suggesting that much territory remains to be explored to understand the complex family dynamics which do affect life outcomes for individuals (Conley, 2004). In addition, Freese, Powell, & Steelman (1999) argue that birth order effects that extend beyond personal attributes to social attitudes are minimal. Still they note that “although we find no evidence supporting Sulloway’s theoretical claims, our results cannot be taken as an indictment of evolutionary perspectives” (Freese, Powell, & Steelman (1999), p. 236).

This paper looks at the effects of actual birth order on several variables. We recognize that Adler suggested that psychological birth order is of vital importance to understanding a subject’s interpretation of their situation in an environment (such as the family) (Adler, 1937). Studies have pointed to the usefulness in understanding psychological birth order; for example, one project looked at 134 school aged children using the White-Campbell Psychological Birth Order Inventory instrument and found support that psychological birth order effects coping skills (Pilkington, White, & Matheny, 1997). The validity of the White-Campbell Psychological Birth Order Inventory Instrument to further observe that psychological birth order effects may trump actual birth order has also been noted (Stewart & Campbell, 1998). Other more recent studies have examined psychological birth order with college students looking at: family atmosphere and personality (Stewart, Stewart, & Campbell, 2001); lifestyle issues (Gfroerer, Gfroerer, Curlette, White, & Kern, 2003); and multidemensional perfectionism (Ashby, LoCicero, & Kenny, 2003). However, research has consistently shown that looking at actual birth order offers useful insights. In his review of birth order articles from 1960 to 1999, Eckstein (1998) reported statistically significant birth order studies (though not psychological birth-order studies) and offers some support for works looking at actual birth order. His review specifically notes that research has shown personality differences among subjects according to four major categories: oldest, middle, youngest, and single (p. 482). As Adler suggested, individuals in families experience difference environments within the same family and some of those differences can be attributed to birth-order (Sullivan & Schwebel, 1996). In a study looking at ninety-three never-married firstborn, middle-born, and last-born undergraduate students, Sullivan & Schwebel found consistency with Adler’s theory in individuals’ relationship-cognitions (1996, p. 60). Another study looked at 154 students at a large southern univeristy to asses actual birth order on internal and external attributions and found that attributions differed by birth order for positive attributions (Phillips & Phillips, 1998). One study examined 900 undergraduates who were asked to locate their birth order, the birth order of the parents and that of their best friend. This study provided evidence that showed individuals who shared the same birth order were more likely to be romantically involved or have close relationships with other similar birth order individuals (Hartshorne, Salem-Hartshorne, & Hartshorne, 2009).

The field remains contentious. Other researchers have critized birth order scholarship on predicting only positive outcomes such as success in careers, test scores, and income (Argys, Rees, Averrett, & Witoonchart, 2006). Researchers suggest that useful information about youth outcomes can also be understood by examining risky behavior for children, such as drug use and sexual activity. For instance, a recent study, examined how understanding birth order within family dynamics could impact young African American college students:

“Connecting a link between birth order and alcohol would constitute a “within family” measure study. The concept of “within family” concentrates on individual siblings and their sibling birth positions. Investigation factors such as an individual’s sibling position in relation to alcohol consumption may facilitate a better understanding of college drinking patterns and other high-risk behaviors” (Laird & Shelton, 2006, p. 19).

Thus, it is helpful to approach international settings using Adler’s theories in order to examine if there are effects that the children’s birth order roles have on both positive (educational outcomes) and negative (high-risk drug use patterns) life choices.

Adler’s work has rarely been applied to an international context, but recent work points to its persisting relevance. From a study that took data from the Department of Human Services from various years (2003–2007) of over 95,000 people from twelve Sub-Saharan Countries researchers developed a framework using fixed effect regressions per country for understanding how birth order affects first born educational outcomes while accounting for SES and gender Tenikue & Verheyden, 2010.

Understanding how birth order and gender function within the context of diverse populations, in this case an international context, can be an important and vital area for researchers to explore. First, these studies further explain and improve culturally competent approaches for mental health practitioners and others interested in evidence-based work. Secondly, such work can contribute to the overall theory and literature on birth order.

However, assessing the effects of birth order have had mixed success (Solloway, 1996). To further contribute to our understanding of birth order effects on youth behaviors, and building upon the work of prior researchers (Jordan, Whiteside, & Manaster, 1982), we tested whether three theoretical models of birth order differentially accounted for variation in academic standing and substance use among community-dwelling adolescents in Santiago, Chile. These models were first suggested by Jorden, Whiteside, and Manaster (1982) as a way to test for possible birth order effects. These authors note that models were taken from previous research and consist of three slightly different ways of measuring birth order. The first model is called “research expedient” and takes into account first child only, the middle child, and the youngest including children who are the second child of only two children (Falbo, 1977; 1981). The second model is called “Adler’s birth order positions” and looks again at ‘only child’, but adds new levels of first child, the second child, the middle of at least three children in a family, and the youngest child not including the second child of two children (Shulman & Mosak, 1977). Finally, we used Shulman and Mosak (1977) as cited in Jordan, et. al (1982) family size model that takes into account family size (small, medium, or large) and then looks again at the birth order within those levels of family size. For example, this model considers the only child of a small, medium, or large family; then the model continues with first born; second born, middle children, and youngest children each within a small, medium, and large family. We chose the dependent variables, youth substance use and educational outcomes for the following reasons: first, studies have shown that these variables have some correlation with birth order (Laird & Shelton, 2006); secondly, drug use has been seen as a rising issue for populations in Latin America, and one way to treat this problem is through examining educational outcomes.

In the present study we used these three definitions of birth order to account for differing opinions as to the efficacy of birth order studies. This work then can contribute to the birth order literature by testing models that take into account the expedient research, Adler’s birth order position, and family size definitions of birth order. To date, we are not aware of any studies that have tested more than one model of birth order simultaneously and that have examined Latin American populations for understanding how birth ordering and gender may be associated with youth educational outcomes and substance use and misuse.

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