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TRAMONTANA, J. M. (2002). Birth Order and Anxiety in College Students. National Undergraduate Research Clearinghouse, 5. Available online at http://www.webclearinghouse.net/volume/. Retrieved September 28, 2023 .

Birth Order and Anxiety in College Students

Sponsored by: MUKUL BHALLA (bhalla@loyno.edu)
This study sought to determine if there is a relationship between birth order and anxiety. It was hypothesized by the researchers that first-born children would report more general anxiety than last-born children, and that middle children would report less anxiety than first and last borns. It was also hypothesized that only children would report the least anxiety of all participants. Participants were twenty-one male and seventy-three female undergraduate students at Loyola University New Orleans. Of these participants, thirty-five were first borns, thirty-three were last borns, nineteen were middle children, and seven were only children. Anxiety levels were measured using the Brief Symptom Inventory Survey (Derogatis, 1993). Participants were asked to complete this survey. The hypothesis was not supported and there was found to be no difference in anxiety levels between any of the birth orders. There may in fact be differences which did not present themselves in our research due to convenient sampling and survey used in the process.

Many parents, teachers, and others who directly relate with children have described the children they interact with as being the "classic" older child or the "typical" baby of the family. Talk of the "middle child syndrome" is prevalent in society. Movies and television programs have even begun to write characters which go along with the stereotypes of older, middle, and younger children. The older child is usually portrayed as the worrier, the logical thinker and the most intelligent in the family. The middle child is seen as the "forgotten one," always being overshadowed by the achievements of the older sibling. The youngest child is almost always characterized as the rebel and carefree. The world seems to be sure that behavioral and emotional traits can be attributed to a child`s birth order. These stereotypes do have some basis in psychological study. Alfred Adler is most known for his theories concerning the human personality. He stressed that birth order is a key factor in the development of a personality. He also believed that certain personality characteristics could be identified to certain birth orders. For example, only children have a need to be the center of attention, oldest children take on authoritative roles, and youngest children relish in their position as being the baby of the family (http://www.marymt.edu/~psychol/exper/Chap14.html, 2002). Research has also shown that due to higher expectations that are placed on the oldest child in a family, first-borns experience more guilt, anxiety, and difficulty in coping with stressful situations (Santrock, 2002). Some research has also found that first-borns have lower self-esteem than later-borns (Sarason, 1969). Research has stated that it is also important to keep in mind that other factors such as age spacing between children, sex of the children, hereditary, temperament, parenting styles, peer influences, sociocultural factors, etc. can also impact personality (Santrock, 2002). There has been much discussion on the main determinants of personality and social attitudes. Some theories state that gender and social class are the best determinants of personality, while others state that birth order is a better predictor of social attitudes than gender and social class. Recent archival studies have shown that first-borns responded very differently to certain measures concerning social attitudes than did later-borns. Some of the social attitudes which were studied included political identification, opposition to liberal social movements, views on race and gender, support for existing authority, and "tough-mindedness." There was found to be considerable difference in the responses of first-borns and later-borns (Freese, 1999). Research studying birth order and its affects on behavior and personality traits are often contradictory. Some research completed by Schachter has found that when placed in a high anxiety situation, first-born children experience more anxiety than later born children. Students in the high anxiety situation were told that they would receive shocks that would cause pain but would do no permanent damage. Students in the low anxiety situation were told that they would receive mild shocks (Weller, 1962). Weller replicated Schachter`s original study and found conflicting results. In Weller`s study, 234 freshman and sophomore female students were divided into groups of six. The groups were then divided into high anxiety condition and low anxiety condition. The high anxiety condition groups were told that they would receive electrical shocks that "would hurt, be painful, but do no permanent damage." Participants in the low anxiety condition groups were told that they would receive mild shocks. The participants were given an adjective checklist at various times during the experiment. There was a pre-experimental measure of anxiety, a measure of anxiety after the anxiety manipulation was presented, and then a measure of anxiety was taken forty minutes after the experiment. Weller`s study found that there was no significant difference in the anxiety levels between first-borns and later-borns. Weller did find that first-borns arrived to the experiment with more anxiety than later-borns. There have been many studies which have supported the theory that first-borns experience more anxiety than do later-borns and that birth order does play an important role in the development of personality. One such study was conducted by Zucker, Manosevitz, and Lanyon (1968). This study sought to view the relationship between birth order, anxiety, and affiliation during a crisis. During a power failure in New York City, the researchers administered a questionnaire to sixty-five men and thirty-five women. The study found that first-borns became more anxious when confronted with a high anxiety situation. The theory that first-borns experience more anxiety than do later-borns was also supported by a study conducted by McDonald and Carrol (1981) which sought to study the relationship between birth order and death anxiety. One hundred undergraduate students were asked to provide basic family history such as number of siblings and marital status of parents. The participants were also asked to complete the measure of anxiety by Dickstein (1972), Handal (1969), and Templer (1970). The results of the study show that first-born and only children scored higher on the Templer scale than did later-born students (McDonald, 1981). There have been numerous studies which have not supported the theory concerning the influence of birth order on personality development. A study conducted by Gates (1988) sought to examine the relationship of birth order to depression, anxiety, and self-concept in children. Four hundred and four children ages seven through twelve were given surveys that included the Children`s Depression Inventory, the State-Trait Anxiety Inventory for Children, and the Piers-Harris Self-Concept Scale. The results showed that first-borns appeared healthier than the other groups, showing less depression, state anxiety and trait anxiety. The study did mention that their findings did contradict findings in earlier research which found that first-borns are less well adjusted than later-borns, and it was mentioned that the findings were not consistent with Adler`s theory. Another study which rejects the theory of the affect of birth order on anxiety was conducted by Jacoby (1968). In this study, 120 college students were randomly divided into three groups: high anxiety, mild anxiety, and control. Then the students were asked to respond to the following question: "How nervous or uneasy do you feel about taking part in this experiment?" They were asked to respond by checking one answer on a six-point scale. The answers could range from "I feel extremely uneasy" to "I feel completely calm." The results of the study showed that first-borns and later-borns exhibited the same levels of anxiety when they first arrive for the experiment. It is suggested in the study that the results of previous studies which showed differences in anxiety were experimentally induced (Jacoby, 1968). Our research sought to bring some clarity to the conflicting research concerning birth order. Many of the studies have sought to test anxiety under specific high anxiety situations; however, we felt that the best indicator of a relationship between birth order and anxiety was to test anxiety under normal circumstances thereby understand the relationship between birth order and general anxiety; therefore, we measured the anxiety of the participants without placing them in a high or low anxiety situation but rather measured their anxiety levels with no manipulation of the environmental conditions. By studying the relationship between birth order and general anxiety in college students, we hoped to find results that would confirm the relationship. We hypothesized that if a student was a first-born child, he or she would feel more anxiety when compared to non first-born children. If a student was the last-born in their family, he or she would have the lowest levels of anxiety when compared to non last-born children. Only children would have the lowest level of anxiety when compared to all other participants.


One hundred Loyola University undergraduate college students participated in the study. Participants were 21 males and 73 females and ranged in age from eighteen years to twenty- two years. All participants volunteered for the study. Convenience sampling was used. Some students were given course credit depending upon the discretion of the professors. The researchers recruited participants by obtaining permission from psychology professors at Loyola University New Orleans to enter their classes and recruit subjects. Also, sign-up sheets were posted on the Loyola University Subject Pool board in the Psychology Department. The study was opened to all Loyola University undergraduate students regardless of sex, race, religion, or ethnicity.

Participants were given consent forms which described the basics of the study. A Brief Symptom Inventory Survey (Derogatis, 1993) was used in the study (Refer to Appendix). It consisted of a list of problems that people sometimes experience and required participants to read each one and indicate the answer that best described how much that problem has distressed or bothered them during the past month. The students circled an answer from the choices not at all, a little bit, moderately, quite a bit, or extremely. The higher the score, the higher the anxiety level was. Pens or pencils were used to complete the survey. Some items were added to the survey by the researchers. For example, participants were asked to write their age. Then were asked how many brothers they had and the ages of those brothers, and how many sisters the participant had and the ages of those sisters. By examining this data, birth order was determined.

This study was established as a quasi-experiment which would examine the relationship between birth order and anxiety. Birth order, the independent variable, had four levels: first-born (being the first child born in a family), last-born (children born the last in their family), middle-children (not born first or last in a family), and only-children (participants with no siblings). Anxiety measures were defined according to the Brief Symptom Inventory (Derogatis, 1993) utilized by the researchers. For statistical and analyzing purposes, an answer on the survey of "not at all" was labeled as "0" while an answer of "extremely" was labeled as "4."Permission to enter Psychology classes to recruit subjects was obtained from the Psychology faculty members at Loyola University New Orleans. The researchers entered the classroom and told the students that a study would be conducted. The researchers then asked if any students were willing to participate. The researcher also told the students that the information provided in the study would remain confidential. Two copies of the informed consent forms were given to those students willing to participate. Students who were still willing to participate after reading the consent form were instructed to sign one of the consent forms. The students were then given a survey and the researcher explained that the study was seeking to learn information about general anxiety in college students. Next, the researcher explained that the participants could take the surveys and consent forms home and return them at the next class period. After giving the students the survey, the researcher exited the classroom. At the next class period, the researcher returned to the classroom and picked up the surveys from the participants. The researcher then debriefed the participants by explaining that the researchers were not simply looking at general anxiety on college students, but rather were looking at the relationship between birth order and anxiety in college students. A sign-up sheet was also posted at the Psychology Department`s human participants bulletin board. The sign-up sheet gave a brief description of the study. It stated that this study sought to study general anxiety in college students. The sheet also listed the researchers` names and contact information. Times and room numbers where the study would take place were also listed. Students were instructed to sign up by a time when they wished to participate. The only difference in procedure concerning participants who signed up for the study on the Human Subjects Pool list and those students who were recruited in classes was that participants who signed up for the study on the Human Subjects Pool list met with the researchers at a designated time in a designated classroom. There the participants followed the same procedure, but they filled out the survey in front of the researcher and after turning in the survey, were immediately debriefed by the researchers.

The thirty-five first-born participants had a mean anxiety scale score of 1.24; the thirty-three last-born participants had a mean anxiety scale score of 1.21. The nineteen middle born participants had a mean anxiety scale score of 1.48 (as seen in Table 1). The hypothesis that first borns experience more anxiety than last born and middle born participants was not found to be true. A one-way ANOVA statistical analysis was used to interpret the data collected, and the results were not significant with F(3, 90)=.688. The null hypothesis could not be rejected. A significant difference in the general anxiety levels of first-borns, last-borns, middle-borns, and only children was not found.

The results of our study are not completely conflicting with results of previous research. As mentioned, there have been varying results in studies concerning the affect of birth order on different aspects of personality. Schachter found that when placed in high anxiety situations, first-born children experience more anxiety than later born children (Weller, 1962). When Weller replicated Schachter`s study, he found that there was no difference in the anxiety levels between first-borns and later-borns (1962). Some studies have produced significant results, reporting differences in anxiety levels between different birth orders, such as the Schachter study, and others have not reported seeing a difference, as seen in the Weller study. Perhaps there is a difference in the anxiety experienced by children of different birth orders and our study, due to numerous factors, was unable to find that difference, or perhaps there is no difference in anxiety levels between children of different birth orders.LimitationsThere are a few reasons that may account for non-significant results. First, there may have been an element of social desirability present in the study. Participants may have felt the need to be perceived as well adjusted by the researchers and therefore were not completely truthful in expressing their anxiety. This could explain why a majority of the participants reported relatively low levels of anxiety.Another factor may have been the limited sample size and characteristics of the sample. Because our resources and time were limited, convenient sampling had to be use; therefore, only students from Loyola University participated in the study. Perhaps students from Loyola University experience more or less anxiety than the average college students. Also, because of the highly academic nature of the University and the high standards put on students applying, the students at Loyola University may be able to cope with stress better than the average college student at a public university. Had we been able to test a wide variety of students from different universities, colleges, and community colleges around the country, we may have found significant results. Yet another factor that may have affected the results is that the survey which we used asked specifically about physical manifestations of anxiety (shakiness, trembling, feeling keyed up etc.) present in the last month. Perhaps many students did experience large amounts of anxiety, but their anxiety might not have been manifested in physical symptoms, or they may not have remembered the physical manifestations of their stress. Had we used a survey which did not focus on the physical manifestations of anxiety but rather asked about how much the participant worries or how much they feel their school performance is affected by their level of concern, then we may have found significant results.Future Directions The study of birth order and its effects on personality development and coping ability should continue to be investigated. Results from studies of this nature could provide useful information to parents as well as educators. As more knowledge is acquired about birth order affects, parenting styles and the education system could be adapted to cater to the needs of individuals and provide them with the best education, discipline, and guidance that they can respond to. Although our study did not find significant results, I do believe that birth order does affect the development of a child and influences personality traits. Adler stressed that birth order is a very important factor in the development of personality. He believed that first-born children have more "power" over their younger siblings and that youngest children must compete harder in order to "maintain position" (http://www.marymt.edu/~psychol/exper/Chap14.html, 2002). Adler also taught that first borns are more conservative than their younger siblings. Some studies have found that first-borns have lower self-esteem than later-borns (Sarason, 1969). I would suggest that researchers continue the investigation of the effects of birth order or different aspects of personality and coping such as depression, anxiety, assertiveness, and self-esteem. I do recommend that future research be conducted using a larger and more diverse sample than we were able to use.

Table 1

Anxiety Scale N Mean Std. Deviation Std. Error 95% Confidence Interval for Mean Minimum Maximum Lower Bound Upper Bound first born 35 1.2429 .7347 .1242 .9905 1.4952 .17 3.00last born 33 1.2121 .7099 .1236 .9604 1.4638 .00 3.17middle borns 19 1.4825 .7855 .1802 1.1039 1.8610 .50 3.33only children 7 1.4048 .6587 .2490 .7956 2.0139 .33 2.33Total 94 1.2926 .7278 7.507E-02 1.1435 1.4416 .00 3.33

Derogatis, L. R. (1993). Brief Symptom Inventory: Administration, scoring and procedures manual (3rd ed.). Minneapolis, MN: National Computer Systems, Inc. Does your birth order affect your abilities? Retrieved September 18, 2002, http://www.marymt.edu/~psychol/exper/Chap14.html Freese, J., Powell, B., & Steelman, L.C., (1999). Rebel without a cause or effect: birth order and social attitudes. American Sociological Review, 64, 207. Gates, L., Lineberger, M. R., Crockett, J., & Hubbard, J., (1988). Birth order and its relationship to depression, anxiety, and self-concept test scores in children. The Journal of Genetic Psychology, 149, 29-34. Jacoby, J., (1968). Birth rank and pre-experimental anxiety. The Journal of Social Psychology, 76, 9-11. McDonald, R.T., & Carroll, J. D., (1981). Three measures of death anxiety: Birth order effects and concurrent validity. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 37, 574-577. Sarason, I.G., (1969). Birth order, test anxiety, and learning. Journal of Personality, 37, 171-177. Santrock, J.W., (2002). Socioemotional development in early childhood. In J.E. Karpacz (Ed.), Life-span development (pp. 253-254). Boston: McGraw-Hill.Weller, L., (1962). The relationship of birth order to anxiety: A replication of the Schachter findings. Sociometry, 25, 415-417. Zucker, R.A., Manosevitz, M. & Lanyon, R. I., (1968). Birth order, anxiety, and affiliation during a crisis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 8, 354-359.

Gender: (circle one) Male/Female

Age: _______

Major: __________________

Are you the only child in your family? (circle one) YES/ NO

If not, how many siblings do you have?Number of Brother(s)_______Age(s)___________ Number of Sister(s)_________Age(s)___________Did you come to school already knowing another student at Loyola (Freshmen- Seniors)?(circle one) YES/NO

If yes, how many students did you know when you entered? _______

Do you live on or off campus? (circle one) ON CAMPUS/ OFF CAMPUS

Below is a list of problems people sometimes experience. Please read each one carefully and indicate the answer that best describes how much that problem has distressed or bothered you during the past month.

1. Nervousness or shakiness inside.

Not at all A little bit Moderately Quite a bit Extremely

2. Suddenly scared for no reason

Not at all A little bit Moderately Quite a bit Extremely

3. Feeling so restless you couldn`t sit still.

Not at all A little bit Moderately Quite a bit Extremely

4. Feeling tense or keyed up.

Not at all A little bit Moderately Quite a bit Extremely

5. Spells of terror or panic.

Not at all A little bit Moderately Quite a bit Extremely

6. Feeling fearful.Not at all A little bit Moderately Quite a bit Extremely

Submitted 12/10/2002 4:41:15 PM
Last Edited 12/10/2002 4:51:12 PM
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