Those born later in a family may not be “born to rebel,” as posited by some researchers. A new study published in Personality and Individual Differences found later-born individuals are not more likely to have tattoos, and although they do test higher in measures of risk-taking and sensation seeking, they did not demonstrate a higher need for uniqueness. The study did not find good evidence for the “born to rebel” hypothesis, leaving another birth order theory open to critique.
The “born to rebel” hypothesis, developed by Frank Sulloway in 1996, suggests that later-born children tend to develop traits that diverge from societal norms to differentiate themselves from their older siblings and secure parental investment. According to this theory, first-born children are more likely to conform to familial and societal expectations. In contrast, later-born children are more likely to take risks and adopt world views that are different from their family culture.
Efforts to prove the “born to rebel” hypothesis have revealed later-born children are sometimes found to have lower levels of conscientiousness and higher levels of openness, agreeableness, risk-taking, and rebelliousness. However, these results have not been consistent across studies, and Sulloway’s work on the theory has been criticized for its methodology and statistical analysis.
Despite these concerns, interest in theories relating to birth order and personality remain. Accordingly, Gareth Richards and colleagues sought to add to the birth order literature. To test the predictions of the “born to rebel” hypothesis, the research team examined the relationship between birth order and tattoos in a sample of over 2,000 participants from the United Kingdom and Poland. Tattoos were chosen as a variable due to their association with risk-taking and rebelliousness and their prevalence in the general population.
Richards and colleagues predicted that later-born individuals would be more likely to have tattoos. This relationship would be due to personality factors such as openness, risk-taking, sensation-seeking, and the need for uniqueness. However, they found that birth order was not a significant predictor of having tattoos, despite the fact that tattooed individuals tended to score higher on measures of risk-taking, sensation-seeking, and need for uniqueness.
Furthermore, while later-born individuals scored higher on risk-taking and sensation-seeking measures, they actually scored lower on the need for uniqueness compared to first-born individuals. In sum, these findings do not support the “born to rebel” hypothesis, as they suggest that birth order is not a significant predictor of rebellious behavior or non-conformity.
The authors acknowledge several limitations to their study, including that their sample consisted of university students, who may not be representative of the general population. Additionally, the study only examined tattoos as an outcome variable, and other measures of risk-taking and rebelliousness could yield different results.
Despite these limitations, this study adds to the body of literature on birth order and personality. Moreover, it suggests that the “born to rebel” hypothesis may not be a universal explanation for the differences observed between first-born and later-born children. Future research in this area could examine other potential causes of the relationship between birth order and personality or explore the role of cultural and societal factors in shaping these differences.
The study, “Birth order, personality, and tattoos: A pre-registered empirical test of the ‘born to rebel’ hypothesis“, was authored by Gareth Richards, Miles Newman, Amy Butler, Julia Lechler-Lombardi, Tinisha Osu, Karolina Krzych-Miłkowska and Andrzej Galbarczyk