Rebel without a cause or effect: Birth order and social attitudes

Jeremy Freese*, Brian Powell, Lala Carr Steelman

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

81 Scopus citations


The enduring effects of an individual's birth order have been subject to a long and lively debate in sociology and other disciplines. Recently, in response to Sulloway's (1996) Born to Rebel: Birth Order, Family Dynamics, and Creative Lives, interest has increased in the possible effects of birth order on social attitudes. Using quantitative, historical data, Sulloway found that birth order is a better predictor of social attitudes than is gender, class, or race. His novel, evolutionary theory asserts the universal influence of birth order across eras and cultures. We use contemporary data to test Sulloway's contention that firstborn adults are more conservative, supportive of authority, and 'tough-minded' than laterborns. Examining 24 measures of social attitudes from the General Social Survey (GSS), we find no support for these claims, either in terms of significant effects or even the direction of nonsignificant coefficients. An expanded inquiry using all (202) relevant attitudinal items on the GSS yields similar results. In our analysis, variables discounted by Sulloway-gender, race, social class, and family size-are all linked to social attitudes more strongly than is birth order. Our findings suggest that birth-order theories may be better conceptualized in terms of modest effects in limited domains and in specific societies.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)207-231
Number of pages25
JournalAmerican Sociological Review
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jan 1 1999

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Sociology and Political Science


Dive into the research topics of 'Rebel without a cause or effect: Birth order and social attitudes'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this