Birth Order and Intelligence

Petter Kristensen and Tor Bjerkedal:

Negative associations between birth order and intelligence level have been found in numerous studies. The explanation for this relation is not clear, and several hypotheses have been suggested. One family of hypotheses suggests that the relation is due to more-favorable family interaction and stimulation of low-birth-order children, whereas others claim that the effect is caused by prenatal gestational factors. We show that intelligence quotient (IQ) score levels among nearly 250,000 military conscripts were dependent on social rank in the family and not on birth order as such, providing support for a family interaction explanation.

Benedict Carey:

The average difference in I.Q. was slight — three points higher in the eldest child than in the closest sibling — but significant, the researchers said. And they said the results made it clear that it was due to family dynamics, not to biological factors like prenatal environment.
Researchers have long had evidence that firstborns tended to be more dutiful and cautious than their siblings, and some previous studies found significant I.Q. differences. But critics said those reports were not conclusive, because they did not take into account the vast differences in upbringing among families.
Three points on an I.Q. test may not sound like much. But experts say it can be a tipping point for some people — the difference between a high B average and a low A, for instance. That, in turn, can have a cumulative effect that could mean the difference between admission to an elite private liberal-arts college and a less exclusive public one.

Carey’s followup article:

Dr. Trapnell compared this process to the so-called jigsaw approach used in classrooms, in which complex projects are divided up and each child becomes an expert in a particular task and instructs the others.
Younger siblings often have something more to pass on than the tricks of their favorite hobby, or the philosophy behind their social charm. Evidence suggests that younger siblings are more likely than older ones to take risks based on their knowledge and instincts.