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The Science of Smart: Firstborns Motivated To Learn, Secondborns Motivated To Win

This season, we’re thrilled to feature the work of Annie Murphy Paul, a writer who helps people understand how we learn and how we can do it better. Her Brilliant Blog features the latest research in cognitive science, psychology and neuroscience, revealing the simple and surprising techniques that can help us learn to be smarter.

New research claims firstborns are be more motivated to learn, while secondborns are more motivated to win, reports Rachel Lowry of Deseret News:

“The study, published in the Journal of Research in Personality, examined almost 400 students. It found that birth order can be a lens through which first and secondborns see the world, in ways that impact their motivation and likelihood of career and personal success (though the roles often can be reversed with patience and practice).”

Curious to learn more, I looked at the study itself. Led by Bernd Carette of Ghent University in Belgium, the abstract reads in part:

“Using different analytic approaches, we show that birth order lies at the heart of people’s goal preferences as we consistently found that firstborns have developed a preference for mastery goals (which are based on self-referenced standards of competence), whereas secondborns have developed a preference for performance goals (which are based on other-referenced standards of competence). These findings may help explain why people differently define, experience, and respond to competence-relevant situations, including the workplace, the classroom, and the ball field.”) (Read more here).

I’m skeptical in general of birth order theories. The best comment I can remember reading about them is that, while one’s position in the family certainly does affect one’s experiences growing up, it doesn’t affect personality or outlook in any predictable way. That is, while birth order matters in each individual case, it doesn’t allow us to make sweeping generalizations across individuals.

Rachel Lowry, author of the Deseret News article, makes another important point in quoting Toni Falbo, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Texas: “Most of the variants or factors that contribute to any particular outcome at any one time—such as socioeconomic status or health—are outside of birth order,” says Falbo. “These are sorts of issues that have more direct connections to outcomes than whether you were second of three.” (Read more here.)

But let’s hear from you—do you feel that you were affected by your position among your siblings, and do you see regularities among the firstborns and secondborns you know?

Tell us what you think on Twitter, Facebook, or email.

Annie Murphy Paul

    Annie Murphy Paul is a book author and magazine journalist who writes about how we learn and how we can do it better. A contributor to Time magazine, she writes a weekly column about learning for, and has written for The New York Times Magazine, The New York Times Book Review, Slate, and O, The Oprah Magazine, among many other publications. She is the author of “The Cult of Personality,” a cultural history and scientific critique of personality tests, and of “Origins,” a book about the science of prenatal influences. She is now at work on “Brilliant: The New Science of Smart,” to be published by Crown in 2014. You can read more about the science of learning at her website,