May 25, 2010

Updated: Birth Order

Birth order theories (e.g., first-borns tend to be more risk-averse) have been around for a long time without making all that much progress. The data is very complicated and how exactly do you specify what you are looking for?

Well, here's an NYT article on a small study that is well-defined enough that they might have actually found something:
In the current issue of Personality and Social Psychology Review, Frank J. Sulloway and Richard L. Zweigenhaft went digging for evidence of siblings behaving differently in the vast database of baseball statistics. Given how younger siblings have been shown to take more risks than their older counterparts — perhaps originally to fight for food, now for parental attention — Drs. Sulloway and Zweigenhaft examined whether the phenomenon might persist to the point that baseball-playing brothers would try to steal bases at significantly different rates.

In fact they did: For more than 90 percent of sibling pairs who had played in the major leagues throughout baseball’s long recorded history, including Joe and Dom DiMaggio and Cal and Billy Ripken, the younger brother (regardless of overall talent) tried to steal more often than his older brother....
UPDATED: A reader tries to reproduce this just for brothers where both were batters (i.e., no pitchers) and finds younger brothers more likely to steal in only 56% of the pairs

“We tend not to exhibit birth-order differences all the time in adulthood — we employ them in situations with siblings, because that’s where the behavior comes from,” Dr. Sulloway said. “But we found that here, and that’s significant.” ...

In other words, Sulloway is making a fairly limited claim for the effects of birth order -- birth order has more effect within the family than in the outer world. The oldest son is much more likely to become CEO than the youngest son of the family firm, but not all that much more likely to become CEO of a publicly traded company.

And there remains the plausible issue of whether younger brothers learned baseball strategy more fully simply by watching their older brothers growing up, which Dr. Zweigenhaft, a professor of psychology at Guilford College in Greensboro, N.C., said could very well be a contributing factor.  

Another explanation about why this study's finding might be restricted to baseball might be that when brothers play on the same team growing up, the older brother will usually be stronger (because he's more mature), and thus be put lower in the batting order in a slugger's RBI slot. In contrast, the younger brother will bat higher in the order where players are more expected to steal.

For example, say you are lucky enough as a high school baseball coach to have two future major leaguers on your team, a pair of brothers two years apart, Al and Ben. Both are much more coordinated at putting the bat on the ball than all your other players. Where do you put them in the batting lineup? When the older one Al was a 150-pound sophomore, you had him batting third or fourth (clean-up) to maximize the number of runs he could drive in because even though he was still thin, he was so much better at hitting the ball than anybody else. But when Al's a 180 pound senior and and his younger 150-pound brother Ben is a sophomore, you still have Al in the RBI slot, but you put Ben in the leadoff slot so he can get on base and steal.

So, by virtue of being older, Al is never given training as a leadoff batter, but Ben, by virtue of being stuck on Al's team, is trained to get on base and steal so his big brother Al can drive him in.

Here's my 1996 book review from National Review of Sulloway's book Born to Rebel.


John Seiler said...

What about the studies that almost all the Mercury and Gemini astronauts were first-borns?

AL said...

I disagree with your lineup analysis. If a coach had two young brothers who were like Barry Bonds relative to their teammates, he would bat older Barry Bonds third and younger Barry Bonds fourth. Or perhaps he would bat younger Barry Bonds second. But his template would be, "He should be hitting third, but I already have an even better three hitter, so what is the next best spot for a great all-around hitter?"

In the big leagues, some righty/lefty consideration might separate two great hitters by a couple spots in the lineup, but not if they are that dominant in high school.

Steve Sailer said...

Sure, if they were identical twins. But, in the vast majority of cases, they aren't twins. One is older. All the way up to maturity, the older one is usually more of a slugger because he's older. The biggest slugger bats third or fourth. If you have somebody who is, as brothers are on average, just like his older brother except, on average, he's less muscular, he would traditionally bat higher in the order.

Anonymous said...

Science defined by lawyers?

Any reference to Sulloway's work should probably also include reference to his shocking and anti-scientific record of defending his views by legal actions instead of rational discourse:

Anonymous said...

Has Steve shown that the effect is limited to baseball, or that the study has revealed how a near universal (environmental?) phenomenon plays out in baseball in particular?

I think a similar study could be done with musical families. Older brother the composer, the younger brother the performer.

For example, the Cellist Julian Lloyd Webber is the younger brother (by 3 years) of the composer Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Their successful careers show both have extraordinary musical ability, but why is Andrew the disciplined musical composer and Julian the expressive Cellist?

Andrew started composing music before age nine and needed someone to play his music. Julian may have wanted to excel at something his brother did not.

Likewise in pop band Oasis Noel Gallagher was the writer, Liam the performer.

- Ed

Anonymous said...

I'd like to see a study of siblings in rock bands and music groups. From my own observation, the younger sibling usually tends to be the most talented or influential. Like Michael Jackson with the Jackson Five, and Eddie Van Halen (prodigious guitar player) compared to his older brother Alex (a run-of-the-mill drummer).

Christopher said...

I wonder about suicide squeeze participants --players, coaches, managers --on both sides, and birth order.

Usually Lurking said...

The Dimaggios are an interesting example since the younger brother, Joe, stole fewer bases per game than the older brother, Vince. No one ever remembers Vince.

Some interesting trivia relative to Birth Order:
- something like 22 out of the first 23 Astronauts to go into space, or possibly walk on the moon, were oldest brothers.
- I once read, in a book on birth order (published in 1988...don't remember what it was called) that the family formation that puts more people in therapy than any other is that family that has 2 children, both being boys that are between 3-5 years apart in age. The reason: they are close enough in age to always compete and far enough apart that the one always loses.

Paul Mendez said...

Judith Rich Harris does not buy the birth order theory of personality in her book, "No Two Alike: Human Nature and Human Individuality" (c) 2006.

As I remember her argument, a first-born may be dominant within the family structure, but once the child goes to school he must adapt to a new social structure where he may no longer be the biggest/strongest. It would be maladaptive for a puny runt to try to dominate his peers just because he could dominate his younger siblings at home.

I found "No Two Alike" very persuasive, but I'm no expert. Anyone have a more knowledgeable take on it?

dearieme said...

I once read that most studies of birth order collapse if you reclassify only children from "first born" to "last born".

stari_momak said...

Baseball statistics=(convenience sample) + (media whore bait)

Anonymous said...

"Another explanation about why this study's finding might be restricted to baseball might be that when brothers play on the same team growing up, the older brother will usually be stronger (because he's more mature), and thus be put lower in the batting order in a slugger's RBI slot. In contrast, the younger brother will bat higher in the order where players are more expected to steal."

At a quick glance it looks like the sample size you might use to make this argument starts out tiny and then dwindles down to nearly nothing.

Cal and Billy Ripken were born more than four years apart. B.J. and Justin Upton attended different high schools. Dom DiMaggio didn't play on his high school team until he was a senior and, in any case, Joe DiMaggio dropped out of high school at age 16.

More generally, I also agree with AL--the gap in talent between two future MLB players and their high school teammates is so vast that there would be essentially no difference in how a high school coach would want to use them in the order.

But, even granting that you'd always have the older brother batting cleanup and the younger brother batting first or second, I'd imagine that the older brother will have plenty of chances to steal. He's going to be up against catchers and pitchers who just aren't equipped to handle steal attempts by MLB-caliber baserunners, and batting in front of bottom-of-the-order high school athletes. Seems like a good scenario for a high school manager to give his star player a green-light to steal. It might even cultivate a more reckless base-stealing approach, since Older Brother, and not Younger Brother, will grow up thinking, "I'd better move myself over to second base, because I don't have a future MLB clean-up hitter waiting in the on-deck circle to drive me in with a home run."

This is fun to think about, but what would be really fun would be to find an actual situation where future MLB players (not necessarily brothers) were on the same high school team and see how their manager used them.

Anonymous said...

How many sons do you have playing baseball? The older brother isn't more likely to be more mature and placed lower in the batting order than a younger brother because they won't be on the same team.

Anonymous said...

The most famous case of twin baseball players and stolen bases ought to be the Canseco brothers. Jose - the infamous juicer - set a sort of record when he stole 40 bases the same year he hit more than forty home runs. His brother Ozzie never could manage to steal a single base during his time in the majors.

Birth order or testosterone? Wadda think?


Anonymous said...

It is good to see a fact-rich infushion into the long long history of fact-sparse, theory-
rich academic onanism about birth order and its impact. Much of Freudianism in the US amounted to this sort of fact-shy verbal churning. Another example of this sort of monkey business was the long history of "psychometric" voodoo giving rise to a fetish of profile analysis with the Wechsler tests. Sooo, the history of "birth order" insights is but once branch in American psychology of Mr. Fact trying to catch up with Mr. Finding.

Phil Birnbaum said...

I wasn't able to duplicated the study's results:

Steve Sailer said...

Thanks, I'll add that to the post.

afadfadsf said...

How about birth order and politics? Are first borns more or less likely to be conservative?

Anonymous said...

afadfadsf said...
How about birth order and politics? Are first borns more or less likely to be conservative?

Peter Hitchens - Right
Christopher Hitchens - Left

Anonymous said...

What about the studies that almost all the Mercury and Gemini astronauts were first-borns?

It's certainly true that the early astronaut cohorts were almost exclusively first-borns, but that tends to underline the thesis rather than refute it. Sure, strapping yourself to a rocket, every single system of which is new and questionable is a big assumption of risk.

But every other aspect of the program selected for and rewarded risk-aversion: they wanted men who would doggedly stay with the program, with its relentless ground training and familiarization for years before you ever flew into space, not nomads who would quit to explore entrepreneurial ventures before NASA got the worth of their training (yes, they all did eventually leave, but only after the moonshots had started happening). They wanted men who would be so boring that no crisis would cause them to lose their cool (those in-flight arguments/conflicts in Ron Howard's "Apollo 13" are completely made-up for dramatic purposes), and so cautious that they could be relied upon to stick with the 1001 pre-arranged contingency checklists if trouble came rather than improvise a 1002nd plan nobody had thought of before.

The myth of the "space cowboy" is just that, a myth. The Mercury and Gemini flyboys were dull and dogged, they were not operational (as opposed to existential) risktakers, and they understood themselves to be only the pointy edge of a spear which was 99% ground-based, pocket protector- and slide rule-equipped poindexters.

couchscientist said...

I subscribe to the prenatal testosterone theory, i.e. that there is generally less of it for later boys. This leaves the first born boys with more masculinized brains than their later born brothers. Thus, the first born will outwardly have stronger jaws, shorter index/ring finger ratios, etc. and be more aggressive and mathematically orientated than later born peers. Of course there are exceptions.

I'm not sure that neonatal testosterone effect could explain the baseball stealing deal, except that perhaps the more aggressive older brothers tend to be on the valor side of discretion too often, while their slightly less aggressive younger brothers are better able to assess risks. Additionally, the more feminized younger bro's might have slightly better ability to empathize/understand/read their opponents.
I'm not citing here, but there is a plethora out there of prenatal testosterone articles.

Anonymous said...

I'm a younger sibling who spent years playing on various baseball teams with older brothers. I tend to think that younger siblings steal bases more often simply because of the hunger for attention (strokes in TA).

But there are so many other factors too that impact your performance when playing on the same team as older siblings: fear of showing up your older brothers by playing better than them and what that could mean post-game, the need to carve out your own identity (i.e. if your brothers are good at baseball you might try to be good at football), the effect of using hand-me down equipment (i.e. older gloves, bats, etc.), and getting less practice than older siblings as they tend to be in a more powerful position.

There's a multitude of factors beyond hunger for attention. Further, regarding the methodology in the study I wonder if the reason many of the younger siblings in the baseball study made it to the majors simply because their older brother was a good player. Therefore, one could not consider them to be a truly valid sample.

Here is how I would conduct this study. BTW, I'm a risk analyst (i.e. amateur statistician):

I'd simply take a sample of all major league players who had 2 or more siblings. Then, I'd randomly select 90 players who were oldest born and then randomly select 90 players who were youngest born. I would in fact exclude all siblings. Then, I'd simply do a t-test and compare the two samples to see if there was a statistically significant difference in base stealing between the two groups. I assume there would be. But, I think this methodology is more valid.

JHB said...

Wow...I didn't know that Phil Birnbaum was part of this community.

If I read the data from Birnbaum's look at the issue correctly, he used (100 x SB)/(1B + BB) as a metric, not (100 x (SB + CS))/(1B + BB). I don't know if I've followed what Phil was doing correctly, but if I have, not including caught stealing tallies might make a difference.

Also, it seems that the more likely the siblings were to steal bases, the more likely that the younger sibling dominates. If one sorts the player pairs in descending order of stolen base rates for the pair combined, the rate at which the younger sibling dominates is somewhat higher, as much as a five-out-of-eight chance of being higher, four-fifths of the way down the list. Where neither brother is much of a base stealer, it becomes roughly an even shot for either to be better. Where the numbers of steals are greater, the dominance of the younger sibling increases.

That written, the "truth" appears to be far closer to 57% than to 90%.

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Anonymous said...

Funniest thing about this when applied to Britney Spears is that she is both the oldest and is also younger than her younger sister to prove the point.