What percentage of the world’s population are firstborns?
April 19, 2019 10:18 AM   Subscribe

A friend who espouses a “firstborn psychology” claims that 75% of the world’s population are firstborns and their negative personality traits have a major detrimental impact on society. I can find nothing to corroborate this. Are there such statistics on birth order? (As a firstborn who doesn’t fit the profile, I’m considered an anomaly, he says.) I’d appreciate anyone’s input on the subject before I attempt to refute his theory.
posted by seekingsethplate to Human Relations (17 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
the burden of proof for totally fake sounding claims like this is on the person making totally fake sounding claims
posted by Gymnopedist at 10:28 AM on April 19, 2019 [76 favorites]

Philosophically, I'm with Gymnopedist here. But one can refute the 75% claim easily.

If we define "firstborn" as "first child born to one's mother", then for 3/4 of people to be firstborns, the average number of children born to a woman during her lifetime -- excluding childless women! -- would have to be around 4/3, or 1 1/3. If that were true, world population would be in a steep decline. (For a steady population, the average would have to be around 2 even before excluding childless women, and above 2 after doing so.)

They could be using a different definition of "firstborn" (e.g. first child born to a particular set of parents), but even so, there's no way fiddling with the definition can close such a big gap.
posted by aws17576 at 10:33 AM on April 19, 2019 [28 favorites]

Well, it's not a logically sound counterargument, but there are plenty of famously harmful people who aren't firstborns: Stalin, Hitler, Trump...
posted by col_pogo at 10:34 AM on April 19, 2019 [2 favorites]

You could always point out that Adolf Hitler was the fourth of six children. Stalin was a third child. Bernie Madoff is the second of three children. So, according to your friend's logic, "middle-child psychology" may be the source of all evil.
posted by JamesBay at 10:35 AM on April 19, 2019 [11 favorites]

There is birth order psychology. But I find your friend's claims illogical. Why not ask your friend where they got that stat and list of "negative personality traits."
posted by jj's.mama at 10:36 AM on April 19, 2019 [1 favorite]

The total fertility rate for major regions for the world varies from 1.5 (Central Europe/Baltics) to 4.8 (Sub-Sahara Africa), and includes 1.8 (E Asia/Pacific), 1.8 (N America), 1.9 (Europe/C Asia), 2.1 (Latam / Caribbean), 2.5 (S Asia), 2.8 (M East/N Africa). And fertility rate is slowing in many parts of the world, which means that many of today's adults were born at times when fertility rates where higher.

Even allowing for the rather remote possibility of an unusually higher childhood mortality rate for non-firstborns as compared to firstborns, the 75% figure is simply arithmetically impossible.
posted by plep at 10:40 AM on April 19, 2019 [7 favorites]

Sounds very Old-Testamenty. Maybe just stay away from this person. "They're all evil, but *you're* okay" is a totally not good thing to say.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 10:43 AM on April 19, 2019 [10 favorites]

By the way, you might point out to your friend that if they think the high proportion of firstborns is a problem for society, they should contemplate the problems that would be caused by the only possible "solution" -- perpetual exponential population growth.

Well, technically the other mathematically possible solution is for most people to have no children and a few people to have many children. But it's hard to imagine how that would happen outside an extremely repressive society.

Edited to add: I guess there is also a Biblical plague solution.
posted by aws17576 at 10:48 AM on April 19, 2019 [3 favorites]

Yes, that number is clearly wrong. Plus, recent research indicates that birth order doesn't have much of an effect on personality: Birth Order Is Basically Meaningless, Settling the birth-order debate once and for all
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 10:55 AM on April 19, 2019 [7 favorites]

This thread gives 44.3 % as the percentage of first-borns in MA in 1999, but unfortunately I was unable to track down the source document.

The 75% number seems awfully high, as if someone calculated it by guessing that half of all couples have only one child while the other half have only two children.
posted by ubiquity at 10:55 AM on April 19, 2019 [5 favorites]

In addition to the stats above about 75%, "only children" are not even in the same category as "first borns" if you believe in birth order psychology.
posted by nantucket at 11:09 AM on April 19, 2019 [8 favorites]

Another nail in the coffin of this idiotic "theory" is that as fertility rates have declined in the US and Europe—meaning there are proportionately more first-born children—basically every measure of social health has gone up. Crime has decreased in basically every category but especially impulse-control/violent crimes, life expectancies have gone up (well, until recently in the US), etc.

There's a ton of demographic research that basically all points to higher standards of living emerging as fertility rates decrease. It's not all causative, in the sense of lower fertility rates causing the higher standards of living (though some of them almost certainly are), but it certainly refutes the idea that having more firstborn children in a society is somehow destabilizing. Or if that effect did exist, it would have to be very, very weak, to be buried under the other effects that go in the opposite direction.

Overall the whole thing doesn't wash; it's got the hallmarks of a pet theory that someone is force-fitting their observations and just-so stories into. (Like some people were wont to do with evo-bio stuff a few years ago, ugh.)
posted by Kadin2048 at 12:35 PM on April 19, 2019 [7 favorites]

The 75% number seems awfully high, as if someone calculated it by guessing that half of all couples have only one child while the other half have only two children.

And even that would only lead to 66% of children being first-born. To have 75% of children be first born you'd need 66% of couples having just one child and 33% having just two.

I don't think even in China during the one-child policy did you have a case where 66% of couples had just one child (there were exceptions to the one-child policy and many families took advantage of that).
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 1:33 PM on April 19, 2019 [2 favorites]

I think the more interesting angle is what are the supposed negative personality traits? And their impact is exactly what?
As a firstborn, and mother of an only child, i have very often heard stereotypes about only children. So far the cliche about firstborn children i have heard are all in a category i wouldn't describe as negative for society: overdeveloped sense of responsibility, empathy, social skills, etc.
What is your friends source for this theory?
posted by 15L06 at 2:28 PM on April 19, 2019 [4 favorites]

A different take, and apologies for the wall of text it turned into.

A lot of beliefs have more to do with feelings than facts. And unfortunately, a lot people react to contradictory facts by doubling down on the feelings.

I personally did this when childhood friends tried to talk me out of a terrible relationship. It did not go well. They stuck around. The partner did not. Enough time has passed that we can joke about it, and I appreciate that they tried. :-)

You do have a big advantage, which is an existing social connection and the trust that comes with that. Protect that asset. The main thing to do is try to avoid activating defensiveness. Once that takes hold, you aren't being heard. My friends did this, and dropped it when it was clear I wasn't listening. I'm glad they did, because I needed their help later.

In the years since, what has seemed most effective when trying to persuade friends with fraught beliefs has been taking an indirect approach. It's not as satisfying as a list of facts, but it's been more effective.

Rather than talking about this person's specific untrue beliefs, talk about the phenomenon of untrue beliefs in general. If you need an example, use a different one that isn't tied directly to their self-image. The emotional stakes are lower. If they agree (or eventually agree) that false beliefs are bad, and that doubling down on them is bad, that's progress. You're laying a foundation that can pay off later.

Later in the process - because it's a riskier strategy - you can consider getting closer to the thing they care about, but not attaching it to them. "I once heard a person say X about the fraught topic" can be less threatening. In your case, their belief is pretty unique, so that may not be possible, but you never know?

And, of course, all of the above needs to be done carefully and ethically. This is one of those "are you a Jedi or a Sith" things. Use these powers only for good.

PS: This video is not directly on topic, but it's close, and the author remains fantastic, so I'm plugging it because my feelings tell me I should. ;-)
posted by FallibleHuman at 5:43 PM on April 19, 2019 [1 favorite]

He sounds like a jealous younger child but one playing with a dangerous idea of finding someone to blame. 'My older sibling was a horrible therefore all first borns are horrible' is fairly harmless given it's so laughably hard to substantiate. But who is he going to latch on to next to blame the world's ills? If he's at all reasonable I'd be pointing out the slippery slope he's on. If he's not then I'd distance myself.
posted by kitten magic at 5:54 PM on April 19, 2019

Uh, even if the particular "stat" were true (it's not, mathematically speaking), what's the upshot? You can't not have firstborn children because that's not how the arrow of time works. If the general gist is that the personality traits that tend to come from being the eldest child are bad for the world, there are 2 logical solutions:

1) Banish children entirely, extinguishing the human race, because otherwise some child of any family unit must necessarily be the first born and therefore EVIL.
2) Increase the proportion of non-firstborns by embarking on some kind of global social engineering project, forcing women to bear either no children at all or sufficiently many to counterbalance the evil inherent in their first. This does not sound feasible.
posted by axiom at 9:03 PM on April 19, 2019 [1 favorite]

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