Effects of Birth Order Upon Self-Esteem and Motivation in Middle-borns

Zane A. Maus



Adlerian theory has proposed that birth order plays a significant role in one’s life and that many factors can be attributed to an individual’s views toward their particular placement.  Self-esteem and motivation are two factors that are greatly impacted by birth order position.  This experiment explored the differences middle-borns have in self-esteem and motivation in comparisons to only children, first-borns, and last-borns.  Participants were asked to complete surveys using the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale and the Academic Motivation Scale to gauge self-esteem and motivation.  The hypotheses of the experiment were that middle-borns would have lower self-esteem than all other birth positions and will be more extrinsically motivated than any other birth position.  Analysis of the data found significant differences in self-esteem between middle-borns and only children/first-borns but not last borns.  In addition, no significant difference was found in relation to middle-borns being more extrinsically motivated than other birth order positions.

     Keywords:  birth order, self-esteem, motivation


            For years there have been debates as to whether there is significance upon where an individual is born in relation to his or her other siblings and their birth order.  The debate can date back as far as 1927 when Alfred Adler first proposed his theory on birth order by clearly stating that each child born into a family contains a particular view upon themselves due to their position as well as the parents holding certain standards upon others based upon their positions (Alfred Adler, 2011).  According the Adler, middle-borns have attributes and needs that are much different from that of their first or later-born siblings.  Middle-borns tend to have the need to “dethrone” the oldest born by beating the expectations set for by their parents and to eventually become the dominant individual among the other siblings.  Adler states that this increased motivation to have “perfection” could ultimately cost the middle-borns by instilling upon them an unwinnable battle due to increased expectorations upon the self which could in the end generate a decrease in self-esteem (Alfred Adler, 2011).

            Since the theory of birth order was created by Adler, many have conducted research upon the topic to see if there are significant differences between each member in the order (e.g Gates, Lineberger, Crockett, Hubbard, 1988; Kidwell, 1981; Kidwell, 1982; Salmon, 2003).  These studies primarily focus on birth order in relation to self-esteem.  For example, Shanahan, Crouter & Osgood (2008) conducted a seven year longitudinal study in which the mothers and fathers of 4th or 5th grade children were given one-on-one home interviews to receive testimony as to whether the parents viewed this particular child differently in comparison to the rest of their children in the home.  Factors such as maternal warmth, maternal conflict, and sibling relationships were all considered upon assessing the data.  After concluding the study, Shanahan, Crouter, and Osgood stated that the results of the study indicated different treatment upon each of the children in the families and that the middle-born children tended to receive less maternal warmth and had more maternal conflicts than that of other siblings in the family (Shanahan, Crouter, & Osgood, 2008)   These findings may suggest lower levels of self-esteem in middle-born children due to the lack of interest and care from the primary care givers in his or her life.  Furthermore, an additional study conducted by Zervas & Sherman (1994), reaffirms the findings of Shanahan, Crouter, and Osgood by surveying the children instead of the parents.  Zervas & Sherman surveyed 91 college students about perceived parental favoritism in relation to their own self- esteem.  The results indicated that the students that identified as favored in the family had higher levels of self-esteem and that one of the particular factors as to why they were favored was due to their position in the birth order.  Of the surveyed participants, 62% stated that favoritism was based on birth order, which in return greatly impacts self-esteem (Zervas & Sherman, 1994). 

            In addition to research being done in relation to birth order and self-esteem, research has been conducted to see if there is a relationship between birth order and motivation.  In a study developed by Snell, Hargrove, and Falbo, (1986), 1979 students were given a self-report questionnaire containing an achievement motivation scale to measure factors such as desire for mastery and a willingness to work hard to assess the level of motivation each student had.  Subsequently, the data obtained from the questionnaire was then applied to each of the students’ birth order.  The study relieved a correlation between middle and later-borns having higher achievement motivation than that of firstborns that also had siblings (Snell, Hargrove, Falbo, 1986).  These findings tend to indicate that even though middle-borns and later-borns are lower in the birth order, they may have a higher motivation to succeed that firstborns.

              Even though the study developed by Snell, Hargrove, and Falbo, (1986) suggested that middle and later-borns have higher achievement motivation than firstborns, it doesn’t state that firstborns are unmotivated.  According to the Theory of Human Motivation (Maslow, 1943), all humans strive to achieve self-actualization.  Motivation does not solely come in one form, but multiple internal or external forms, each of which drives the individual for success.  Intrinsic motivation can be defined as internal factors that drive a particular individual to succeed.  In order to be intrinsically motivated, an individual must feel satisfaction with the task they are performing and must be self-determined to achieve their goal with the task.  Individuals who are intrinsically motivated learn for the sake of learning and do not require praise or rewards for their tasks.  Opposing intrinsic motivation is extrinsic motivation which is greatly influenced by external factors in society.  An individual that is extrinsically motivated may be pressured by the outside world such as societal or family influences.  A key component of extrinsically motivated individuals is rewards; these individuals like to receive material or emotional compensation for their work.  Research suggests that individuals that are intrinsically motivated tend to have more academic success than individuals who are extrinsically motivated (Goodman, Jaffer, Keresztesi, Mamdani, Mokgatle, Musariri, Schlechter, 2011). 

            According Webster’s Online Dictionary (2012), self-esteem is “the holding of good opinion of one’s self; self-complacency.  In addition, Webster’s Online Dictionary (2012) refers to motivation as “The psychological feature that arouses an organism to action toward a desired goal; the reason for the action; that which gives purpose and direction to behavior.”  In relation to the previously mentioned research studies, one can identify the fact that self-esteem as well as motivation can be impacted by birth order.  It appears that middle-borns may have lower self-esteem in comparison to first or last-borns (Kidwell, 1982).  Even though the self-esteem may be lower, other research suggests that middle-borns may have higher levels of motivation for success (Snell, Hargrove, Falbo, 1986).  Alfred Adler once stated that, “To be a human being means to possess a feeling of inferiority which constantly presses towards its own conquest. The greater the feeling of inferiority that has been experienced, the more powerful is the urge for conquest and the more violent the emotional agitation.” If this statement is to be true then the more inferior an individual feels the more motivation the individual will have to succeed.  Thus in relation to previously conducted studies, middle-borns tend to have the lowest levels of self-esteem.  If this statement were true then it must also mean that middle-borns would have the highest levels of motivation in comparison to their other siblings.  In addition, even though it is believed that first borns may not be as motivated as middle or last-borns, it does not mean they do not possess a motivational drive.  The Theory of Human Motivation as defined by Maslow states that a human’s goal is to achieve self-actualization and they we are all motivated by factors to reach this goal; thus every individual is motivated in one way or another.  However, one could raise the question as to whether first, middle, and last-borns are all motivated the same way.  Due to higher levels of self-esteem, first-borns and last-borns my feel as though they have a more internalized drive for success, thus making them intrinsically motivated.  On the opposite side of the spectrum, middle-borns, having lower self-esteem may have an additional need to receive acceptance and to strive to please external entities in society, thus making them extrinsically motivated.  

            The following study will seek to support the idea that middle-borns will have the lowest levels of self-esteem in comparison to first or later-borns but will have  higher levels of intrinsic motivation than the other positions of birth order.  The independent variable will be the birth order of the individual while the dependent variable will be the level of self-esteem and the level of motivation the individual possess.  To be considered a first born, the individual must be born or adopted first of all the living siblings or be an only child.  To be considered a middle-born, the individual must have at least one living older sibling as well as at least one younger living sibling.  To be considered a later-born, the individual must have at least one older living sibling as well as no living younger siblings.  Self-esteem shall be measured via the Rosenberg Self Esteem Scale (Rosenberg, 1965) which has been modified and motivation shall be measured via the Academic Motivation Scale (Vallerand, 1992).



            One hundred undergraduate students from a small private midwestern university were given the opportunity to volunteer to complete a self-esteem evaluation using the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale (Rosenberg, 1965) a motivation evaluation using the Academic Motivation Scale (Vallerand, 1992) and a brief informational survey.  Of the 100 participants, 55 were women while 45were men; 39 participants were first or only borns, 28 were middle-borns, and 32 were last-borns. The individuals’ ages ranged from 18 to 50 with a mean age of 20.  The students were given 15 minutes to complete the material.  The participants were given the option to not answer particular questions if they found the content uncomfortable to answer and the choice did not result in omission of the collected data or loss of participation points.


            The participants were asked to complete a self-esteem evaluation based off the Rosenberg Self Esteem Scale which has been slightly modified for this study (Rosenberg, 1965).  The evaluation consists of 10 questions in which the participants were asked to state whether they “strongly agreed, agreed, disagreed, or strongly disagreed” with the statement.  Each question was given a various amount of points based on the selection of the answer and the total amount of points was tallied at the completion of the evaluation.  The numeric score indicated the participants’ self-esteem level.  However, for the purpose of this study, the scale has been expanded to seven possible choices instead of the previous four in hopes of a truer measure of self-esteem.  The questions remain the same, but the scale in which the responses are weighed have been simply expanded.  Furthermore the participants motivation was measured using the Academic Motivation Scale (Vallerand, 1992).  The evaluation consists of 28 questions each of which relates to intrinsic motivation, extrinsic motivation, or are amotivational.  The highest total the individual receives scores for in relation to the previously mentioned possibilities indicates what motivates the individual.  In addition to the two surveys, the participants were also asked to complete a brief personal information survey which asks for the participant’s age, gender, major, and position of birth. 


            The participants were asked to complete the self-esteem evaluation, motivation evaluation, as well as the additional informational survey in an allotted 15 minute time frame.  At the conclusion of the allotted time, the participants were informed as to the purpose of the study.  The data collected from the study was then complied in relation to birth order.  The individuals that considered themselves first-borns or only borns were grouped into the first category.  The individuals that considered themselves middle-borns were grouped into the second category, and the individuals that considered themselves last-borns were grouped into the third category.  The information given by the participants was then averaged based on numeric values received from the evaluations and was then assigned a numeric score to the group as a whole.  From this point, the numeric values for self-esteem and motivation were compared to the other groups in the study. 


            After the surveys were completed by the students, the responses were compiled and were categorized by birth order.  After conducting a one-way ANOVA the results of the Rosenberg Self Esteem Scale indicated a significant difference in self esteem in relation to birth order.  Individuals who were middle-borns (M=50.03 SD=10.7) had significantly lower self-esteem than first and only born individuals (M=56.23 SD=8.44), but did not have significantly lower self-esteem than last-born individuals (M=53.88 SD=7.0), F (3, 96) = 2.981, p=.035.  Even though the analysis indicated that middle-borns had lower self-esteem than last-borns, the results were not significant. 

            In addition to the ANOVA conducted for self-esteem, an addition ANOVA was conducted to measure motivation in relation to birth order.  Individuals who were middle-borns (M=107.59 SD=10.92) were not significantly more extrinsically motivated than first and only born individuals (M=105.87 SD=12.89) or last-born individuals (M=102.34 SD=17.38), F (2, 97) = 1.166, p=.316.  Even though the analysis indicated that middle-borns were more extrinsically motivated than that of only children, first-borns, and last-borns, the results were not significant. 


            The hypotheses of this experiment were that middle-borns would have lower self-esteem than that of only children, first-borns, and last-borns and that middle borns would be extrinsically motivated while only children, first-borns, and last-borns would be intrinsically motivated.  A statistical analysis of the data showed significant differences in self-esteem in middle-borns in comparison to only children and first-borns; however, the difference was not significant in comparison to last-borns.  In addition, no significance was found in relation to middle-borns being more extrinsically motivated than only children, first-borns, or last-borns.  The results of the study indicate that birth order is a significant factor upon self-esteem in individuals, but is not necessarily a significant factor in motivation style. 

            Previous research supports the notion of middle-borns being treated differently and having lower levels of self-esteem as hypothesized in this study.  According to Adlerian theory, middle-borns will be at constant conflict with older siblings in order to dethrone them and to gain power while simultaneously being envious of younger siblings due to the attention they receive from their parents (Alfred Adler, 2011).  This factor is likely to cause significantly lower levels of self-esteem as supported by previous research conducted by Kidwell (Kidwell, 1981, 1982).  In addition this constant struggle will also cause the individual to become more motivated as supported by other previous research (Snell, Hargrove, Falbo, 1986).  The current research on self-esteem supports the previously conducted research by stating that middle-borns have lower levels of self-esteem compared to any other position in the birth order.  This research, however, does not suggest that middle-borns are more likely to be extrinsiclly motivated in comparison to the other birth order positions.  Previous research has not covered such a topic, but tends to suggest a possible correlation.


            While conducting the research, a few potential problems emerged that may have impacted the final results of the study.  Some participants had some difficulty with deciding upon where they fell in relation to birth order.  Many took into consideration factors such as step-siblings that they may or may not impact their views on their positioning.  When the question emerged the participants were told to respond to where they truly fit.  The participants were given the opportunity to take these family members into account if they wished or they could omit them if they did not consider them true siblings.  This difficulty in understanding may have influenced the results collected.

            In addition, the Academic Motivation Scale may have also caused some limitations in the study.  Since the population was college level students a different scale may have been a better choice in determining intrinsic and extrinsic motivation because the AMS was more of a measure to determine motivation in pursuing education which the participants were already doing.  The research may have been impacted due to an untrue assessment of the participants.      

            The final limitation of the study could be the population sample itself.  Due to the environment in which the participants lived, the birth order effect may not been completely prevalent in their lives.  A younger population of elementary or middle school participants may have been a better reflection of the study because they are living with siblings and are always interacting with the individuals responsible for the birth order effect.


            A modified version of this experiment which could produce more reliable results could be conducted on a younger population with a larger sample size.  A modified survey created by the experimenter could also greatly improve the validity of the research by inquiring responses more related to overall motivation instead of strictly academic motivation.  The younger population could show a stronger representation of the impact that birth order has upon an individual’s life which would again increase the validity of the experiment.

            As previously stated, this research supports previously findings in relation to self-esteem; however, it does not support the notion of middle-borns being more extrinsically motivated.  More research is needed to see if a significant difference can be seen between the birth order placements in relation to self-esteem and motivation.



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