Monday, July 26, 2010

Early influences

I would like to highlight a point I made in a comment attached to my previous post - namely that if an individual's political (or for that matter religious or philosophical) views are affected by basic character and personality traits, and if such traits are in part determined by genetic factors and/or by very early experiences, then an individual's views will be less a product of mature reason and analysis than is generally assumed. Consequently, we should be more skeptical of our own convictions.

Recent work in developmental psychology has showed convincingly that - and to some extent how - the sense of self arises from social interaction, but basic personality traits seem to have a strong genetic foundation. This is brought out by the controversy about the influence of birth order. Some (very cursory) reading has led me to the provisional conclusion that the 'first-borns tend to be more conservative' idea is indeed true, but only within (not between) families. Within families first-borns score higher on conservatism, conscientiousness and achievement orientation, later-borns on rebelliousness, openness and agreeableness. The results only work within families because genetic effects are stronger than birth-order effects. The birth-order effect is real but weak.

It is of course intuitively plausible that first-borns might favor the status quo insofar as they often bask in the undivided attention of their parents until the dreaded sibling comes along to drive them out of this childhood paradise.


  1. Birth order might have more effect in some families than in others. My mother has said many times "If you get the first one right, the rest of them turn out fine." I was the first, so I got a lot of attention. That fact alone probably affected the younger ones in ways no science can measure. Being first made me dark and broody in my childhood ... and now the first to laugh, especially at the small stuff. I'm also aware that when my rebellious phase kicked in, it was more extreme than it might have been if I had not been the oldest child, made responsible for the younger ones. But some families might not create these dynamics in the first place. Now you've got me ruminating about my conservative tendency. LOL.

  2. The variations are no doubt infinite - but that attention issue is pretty crucial and significant (though it no doubt plays out differently in different families.) Also the responsibility issue. I was pretty dark and broody - still am I guess. I'm still aspiring to the lightness you allude to (being 'the first to laugh, esp. at the small stuff'). My father - also a first-born - never really achieved it (but he had war horrors in his past to complicate matters).