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TV Shows Influencing Career Choices

Tammy Anderson, associate professor at University of Delaware, says her school’s criminal justice program saw an influx of majors when “CSI” came out and that continues as multiple spin-offs of both “CSI” – short for Crime Scene Investigation – and “Law and Order” air.

From ballroom dancing to cooking to forensic science, popular TV shows are making an impact – both positive and negative – on young generations.

Some viewers are choosing their future career based on shows they watch.

Age is one of the biggest factors in who is influenced the most by reality television shows, said Tammy Anderson, associate professor at University of Delaware.

“It’s the Facebook generation that watches these reality shows,” said Anderson, who studies the sociology of pop culture.

Anderson said that her school’s criminal justice program saw an influx of majors when “CSI” came out and that continues as multiple spin-offs of both “CSI” – short for Crime Scene Investigation – and “Law and Order” air.

It’s wonderful advertising for the profession, she said, but it also gives some false expectations. “CSI” doesn’t give an accurate representation of forensics; they aren’t super cops that go out and catch the crooks.

Another example would be some of the animal cop shows, Anderson said. Life as an animal cop is tough; they see depressing stuff every day, but television glamorizes it.

Increased interest in Delaware Technical & Community College’s culinary program has been prevalent for five or six years, said Ed Hennessy, chairman of the Culinary Department at Terry Campus. However, recent cooking shows have changed student expectations.

During student discussions, he said, cooking shows come up. Instructors make sure students understand how instruction is different from entertainment shows like “Top Chef” or “Hell’s Kitchen.”

“We don’t scream and shout and swear,” Hennessy said, adding that they talk about professionalism.

Cooking shows like those by Julia Child were about instruction, but it’s all a game now, he said. Not that many members of an audience are walking away from a show with a recipe.

In addition, more students are interested in bakery and pastry after seeing elaborate showpieces on TV or programs like “Ace of Cakes.”

Students can get frustrated because they have knowledge from television, but don’t realize what the industry is like. Hennessy said celebrity chefs have been cooking for 20-plus years.

“They are missing the fundamental education,” he said. “We have to get them to practice, get them out on a job, allowing them to practice their skills.”

Even though students might have a few incorrect notions about the culinary profession due to reality shows, Hennessy said they also are more food educated than chefs like him were when they started.

“They can use (their knowledge from cooking shows) as a link to identify what they are learning,” he said.

Chef Lisa Brisch said today’s cooking shows have some impact but not a dramatic one. The real change was years ago when the Food Network started. She runs Dinner Thyme, a personal chef service in Middletown.

“I know when I teach classes in Wilmington, someone is always asking me if I watch it and what do I think of so and so,” she said of shows like “Top Chef,” “but I don’t have time to watch those shows.”

Dr. Marsha Dickson, chairwoman of University of Delaware’s Fashion and Apparel Studies, said not much evidence links enrollment increases with television shows like “Project Runway.”

Enrollment in general started trending up approximately 10 years ago across the country, prior to the shows. At UD, enrollment increased 300 percent until the school started capping the number of students accepted, she said.

However, Dickson added they did have one-third more applications in fashion merchandising in 2008 than 2004, which is the time period covered by the shows.

“The trend started before the shows you mention, but still there could be some impact,” she said.

With shows like “Apprentice,” Anderson said they started to see where the fame — even just 15 minutes — becomes the biggest benefit of being on the show.

“Reality shows have given people the impression that they achieve fame, which is more valuable than money these days,” she said.

“There’s a portion of people who want to be on TV, and reality programs [have] opened it up to them. That recognition and social approval is worth more.”

However, even the winners of shows like “Project Runway” don’t necessarily become secure enough in an insular industry to be the next Versace or on the cover of Vogue magazine, Anderson added.

 


Career of Your Dreams, Career of Your Genes

Ever wonder why you ended up at the job you did? You may have your genes to thank.

Twin studies show that the career of yourdreams may be the career of your genes.

In 1979, identical twins Dean and David Kopsell took part in a study I conducted on cooperation and competition between twins. They were 9 years old at the time, a highly compatible pair who worked together on their puzzle task with skill andmotivation. The smiles on their faces reflected the joy they felt in a job well done. Their IQ scores were well above average and perfectly matched.

Today, at 29, Dean and David are both finishing doctoral degrees in horticulture at the University of Georgia and are seeking similar research positions at the same institution.

How did the Kopsell twins come to walk the same career path? What has made me a researcher and not an investment banker, another person a teacher and not a ditchdigger? And why do some people find their jobs gratifying, while others experience only the daily grind? Since we spend most of our waking hours in the workplace, these questions are key.

Increasingly, researchers have been turning to identical and fraternal twins for answers, with dramatic results. They are finding that genetics, in addition to familial interests, educational, social and other environmental pressures, have a considerable impact on how we choose what we do—and how happy we are with that choice.

Twins reared apart, one University of Minnesota study showed, chose jobs that were similar in terms of complexity level, motor skills and physical demands. In other studies, twins have been shown to have similar tendencies when it comes to “enterprising,” “conventional” and “artistic” undertakings; they also share basic interests, be they science, the pastry arts or public speaking. In both sets of measurements, the similarities between identical twins are greater than between fraternal twins.

Is Everybody Happy?

But it’s not only the content of our work that is influenced by genes. Studies with twins have shown us that our satisfaction on the job may be at least 30 percent attributable to genetic factors. This finding is intriguing because it seems to be related to “intrinsic job satisfaction”—questions of challenge or achievement—rather than “extrinsic” factors such as work conditions or supervision. In other words, internal rewards that come from teaching students or composing music, for example, affect the twins’ job satisfaction in more similar ways than working late hours or having an irate boss. This makes it easier to understand why identical twins reared apart chose similar occupations—their matched genetic predisposition probably steered them toward tasks at which they both excelled and which brought them joy, pride and satisfaction. People in general may, therefore, better understand their level of job satisfaction in terms of how well their abilities and opportunities coincide.

People bring a unique predisposition or set of expectations to the workplace that may be harder to modify than previously thought. And though tinkering with the lighting or buying a better printer or hiring companionable staff may improve job satisfaction, it may not help as much as one might hope. These same genetically influenced tendencies, in more “satisfied” types, may help explain why some people persist at interesting or fulfilling jobs even when they offer only modest pay or slim hopes of advancement. When we like what we do we may be more tolerant of troubles that arise from time to time in any work.

Job satisfaction may also partly be affected by our characteristic happiness levels. Recent twin research showed that the genetic contributions to happiness and stability are about 50 percent and 80 percent, respectively, while life events have only a transitory effect on happiness. How does this work on the job? A bonus may momentarily elevate the satisfaction of an upbeat worker, but is unlikely to sustain it. Longer coffee breaks may lighten the loathing of a despondent employee, but won’t alter his outlook for long. Moreover, two individuals with equally well-matched talents and tasks may vary in job satisfaction if one is typically happy and the other is typically depressed.

Hitting the Road

Have you been with your company 20 years? Changed employers every six months? It may be partly in the genes. In twin studies, genetic factors explained 36 percent of why individuals switch jobs, and 26 percent of why they change careers.

Formal studies define the factors affecting job choice and satisfaction. They cannot, however, capture the unique personal decisions and unforeseen events that all of us face when fashioning our careers. An in-depth look at the lives of prominent identical and fraternal twins may help bring these fascinating details into sharper focus.

The Unplanned Presidents

“A Pair of Presidents Keep It All in the Family” was the headline of a 1995 New York Times article. As I read, I found fascinating and compelling beyond words the rare matched achievements of Harold T. Shapiro, president of Princeton University, and his brother, Bernard J. Shapiro, principal (the Canadian equivalent of president) of McGill University in Canada. Becoming a university president is a position held by so few people that to find it repeated by identical twins suggests that the twins’ genetic abilities and personalities were contributing factors.

I met Harold in his office at Princeton University. His warm and gracious manner promised sincere and thoughtful dialogue on his twinship and career. His office was the epitome of neatness and order, strikingly different from the typically cluttered halls of academia. I saw only one other such office—the one belonging to Bernard. Bernard also welcomed me personally, showing the same friendliness and grace. Opera music played in the background, an interest the twins share. Bernard believes his twin has more natural talent, but said, “I was a better musician because I practiced.”

Indeed, more than their differences, the Shapiros, like many identical twins, presented unique versions of the same score:

In 1961, both twins entered top graduate schools, but in different fields. Harold attended Princeton University in economics, and Bernard attended Harvard University in education. Both chose statistical specializations, prompting Harold’s comment: “Something is going on here. I recognize long odds when I see them.”

Harold earned his Ph.D. in 1964, becoming assistant professor of economics at the University of Michigan. Bernard received his Ed.D. in 1967, becoming assistant professor of education at Boston University. The twins served as university provosts in partially overlapping years, Harold at the University of Michigan and Bernard at the University of Western Ontario in Canada. Harold initially declined the presidency of Princeton, and Bernard initially declined the presidency of McGill. Both universities pursued their candidates, who eventually accepted second offers. Both twins also are the first Jewish presidents of their universities.

Challenge and change draw many people to new jobs. However, the Shapiros never mentioned status as a factor affecting their career choices, something many people would consider important. I also noticed that neither twin expressed regret at sacrificing his personal research programs for administrative responsibilities, something many academics (including myself) find surprising.

Paradoxically, the Shapiros’ different routes to university presidency were similarly unconventional. Neither twin sought the highest post in his academic institution, but opportunities came their way. A boyhood friend observed that while neither twin entertained presidential ambitions, they probably asked the same important questions when the offers came: Is this job interesting? Could I make a contribution? Would I do it well?

Physicians, Not Farmers

Drs. Judith and Julie Swain replay themes brought out by the Shapiro twins. Each holds the chair of the cardiology department in her respective university, a demanding position that few people—and fewer women—attain.

Judith and Julie Swain were born in 1948 in Cypress, Calif., the only children of Joe and Christine Swain. The twins’ father was a salesman and their mother was a librarian. In 1994, at the age of 45, Judith became the only female chair of a major university’s cardiology department, at the University of Pennsylvania, and the first female president of the American Society for Clinical Investigation. She is currently a professor and chair of the department of medicine at Stanford University in Palo Alto. Julie, her older sister by five minutes, was the first female chief of cardiac surgery in an American medical center, Louisiana State University, and is chair of the Food and Drug Administration’s committee on circulatory system devices. She is currently a professor and associate director of the Kentucky Heart Institute at the University of Kentucky in Lexington.

The Swains saw their mother as a role model, someone who set high standards for her own accomplishments. According to Julie, “If we were farmers, we would be good farmers.” They agree that their parents were not responsible for their medical interests, only for the high motivational levels that each twin brought to these interests. Indeed, each credits her career choice to the television shows Dr. Kildare and Ben Casey, in which fictional doctors saved lives. However, because parents provide both genes and environments for their children, the twins’ motivations probably reflect a blend of both.

The twins’ separate medical programs led to their only major career difference: their medical specialty. (Judith studied cardiology, Julie, cardiovascular and thoracic surgery.) But both told me that their medical areas are reflections of their mentors’ interests and that each could easily imagine doing what the other sister does.

Personality parallels as well as similar skills seem to be driving the twins. Both work in their offices and laboratories from early morning until evening. Both twins chose not to have children, opting to care for cats instead. Some people might prefer a less frenetic lifestyle, but the twins thrive on this schedule. Clearly they chose careers commensurate with their outstanding intellect, boundless ambition and unlimited energy. (They both set aside time on weekends for sports activities, especially golf and polo.)

Julie’s remark, “If we were farmers, we would be good farmers,” is worth a second look. I believe she meant that both twins would do the best job possible regardless of the job. I agree, except that the job would have to fit the drive and direction that is essential to both twins’ satisfaction. It may be no accident that the Swain sisters are not farmers.

Twist of Fate

Most people do not know that a twin walked on the moon. On April 16, 1972, identical twin Charlie Duke Jr. departed the Earth’s atmosphere as a lunar module pilot on Apollo 16, becoming the 10th individual to reach the moon’s surface five days later.

While Charlie was in transit, his family was allowed into mission control. When his brother Bill entered the medical laboratory, several staff members who did not know Charlie was an identical twin were shocked, believing he was thousands of miles away and hurtling ever deeper into space.

Why wasn’t Bill buckled in along-side his brother? While it may be only part of the story, one physical difference between the twins had crucial consequences for their early development, twin relationship and professional goals: Bill was born with a heart defect. His shortness of breath and reduced exercise tolerance precluded his participation in active team sports. He also believes that his restricted physical activity and frequent medical visits explain his desire to become a physician.

The case of Charles and Bill Duke demonstrates that a major environmental event can alter genetic predisposition, leading twins to very different career paths. Bill’s inability to join Charlie in athletic pursuits casts a shadow on their twinship. Bill resented being restricted from sports events and sensed parental favoritism toward his more physically fit twin. Their relationship included close moments, but was marked by friction.

I was fascinated by Charlie and Bill as twins because their apparent differences in occupation and life events disguise their fundamental similarities in intelligence and personality. Both twins obtained top grades in their (separate) high schools. They see themselves as “inquisitive, studious and goal-oriented, dedicated to doing the best job possible.”

Charlie says he could imagine doing what his brother does because being a doctor would be “interesting and rewarding.” Bill, on the other hand, realizes that his condition “colored” his world, making it “hard to say” if he might otherwise have joined his twin in space.

Same Nurture; Different Nature

Fraternal twins (who share approximately half their genes) present an informative contrast. Because they are raised in the same environment but are not genetically identical, they help us see the influence of environmental factors. David and Bill Koch are a marvelous lesson in just how modest family influences can be.

Brown-haired David Koch is a chemical engineer and executive vice-president of Koch Industries, the second largest closely held company in the United States. The diversified company, founded in 1940 by his father, operates oil refineries, manufactures chemicals and refining equipment, and owns large cattle ranges. David’s fraternal twin, strawberry-blond-haired Bill, also had been involved in the company until business disagreements led to a series of courtroom battles between the brothers.

David and Bill Koch were born in 1940 in Wichita, Kan. Their behavioral differences emerged early. David was gregarious and athletic, Bill withdrawn and awkward; David was a good student from the start, Bill blossomed in high school and college; David’s interests in people and activities were “mainstream,” Bill’s were “unusual.” The boys competed in many ways, often engaging in unhealthy conflicts.

The twins’ college years at MIT were their friendliest. Both majored in chemical engineering, like their father had; both joined the same fraternity and lived at the fraternity house; both also played college basketball. By 1963, both had received their master’s degrees and by 1971, both were working for the family firm. But by 1980, they were no longer speaking—a far cry from the intimate and ongoing bond that many identical twins share.

“We could not be more different in our behaviors, personalities and interests,” David said. “If the environment has a major influence we should be similar, but we are more different than alike.”

Some people eagerly anticipate their daily work activities, while others spend hours watching the clock. Some people are a blend of the two, embracing certain aspects of their job and avoiding others. If we are dissatisfied with our work, it could be that our genetically influenced predisposition conflicts with the content and rewards of the job. If we want to be happy with our career, twin studies strongly suggest we pay close attention to our inner yearnings.


How Barbie Affects Career Ambitions

In an experiment, girls who played with Mrs. Potato Head thought they could achieve more careers than girls who played with Barbie. Yes, even Doctor Barbie.

Among the things to hate about Barbie is that she’s styled such that no woman could ever have her proportions and remain bipedal. Many say she’s too thin, too made-up, and too passive-looking to be a role model for the modern girl. (Barbie’s response, of course, is #unapologetic.)

There’s already evidence that Barbie affects girls’ body image. But through her many iterations, Barbie has now been a paleontologist, a pilot, and a Marine. With options like those, surely she doesn’t cause any lasting damage to girls’ career aspirations? … Right? Right?

A duo of researchers at Oregon State University hypothesized that playing with sexualized dolls not only hurts self-esteem, it influences the way young girls think about their adult lives.

Past research in the U.K. has shown that nearly a third of female teenagers want to be models, while only 4 percent wanted to be engineers. Adolescent girls, it seems, are drawn to careers based on appearance, not knowledge.

Is Barbie the one steering young girls away from the Python code and toward the catwalk?

For the study, published in the journal Sex Roles, 37 girls between the ages of 4 and 7 were randomly assigned to play with one of three dolls: a typical Barbie doll wearing a fancy party dress; a “career” Barbie, decked in her career-ready lab coat, stethoscope, and “low-heeled shoes” (look out world!); or a Mrs. Potato Head doll, who comes adorned with chunky high heels and hot-pink purse, but otherwise has the countenance of a tuber, like her husband.

egular Barbie (left); “Doctor” Barbie (left); Mrs. Potato Head (right). (Sex Roles)

On average, the girls had 3.89 Barbie dolls at home. Because, you know, sometimes you cut their hair, or you accidentally amputate their toes in tragic accidents involving the “can-opener-is-a-pony” game.

Aurora Sherman, an associate professor in the School of Psychological Science at OSU, told me that Mrs. Potato Head was selected because “I wanted to have a control group that would keep the femaleness in tact,” but wasn’t as sexy. And “In terms of finding a doll that’s remotely the same size as Barbie and is not sexualized, you would be hard-pressed to do that.” Indeed, though she is similarly tawny, female, and supple, not even the most confused child could mistake Mrs. Head with the teetering, quixotically statured Barbie. Not even if they were both wearing lab coats. Not even in Lena Dunham’s America.

The children played with their respective toys for five minutes. Then they were presented with photos of 11 male- and female-dominated professions, so appointed according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data.

The female dominated occupations were teacher, librarian, day care worker, flight attendant, and nurse. The male dominated occupations included construction worker, firefighter, pilot, doctor, and police officer. The neutral occupation was a server in a restaurant.

The girls were then asked, “Could you do this job when you grow up?” and “Could a boy do this job when he grows up?”

Depressingly, all of the girls thought a boy would more likely be able to do more of both the male- and female jobs:

But the girls who played with the Mrs. Potato Head doll thought they could do more of both kinds of jobs than the girls who played with either kind of Barbie. And the “Doctor Barbie,” they found, did not yield better results than “Standard Barbie.”

The paper has a few limitations: The sample size was small, as was the effect size. Still, it’s … icky. Why does a plastic spud make your daughter more likely to think she can be a scientist than an actual scientist doll does?

Maybe there’s something toil-oriented about the potato; handling it might have put the girls in the mindset of an industrious young Komsomol, dutifully tilling the fields of Dzerzhinsk. Or, the researchers speculated, “perhaps five minutes of play is not enough to allow the accessories and story of the Doctor Barbie to take effect.” (First, driving my pink Porsche to my dream house; then, getting engaged to Ken; next, my gerontology rotation…)

“Perhaps Barbie can ‘Be Anything,’ but girls who play with her may not apply these possibilities to themselves.”

Women have been shown to perform worse on math tests when they wear swimsuits rather than sweaters. Barbie, then, might act like a perpetual swimsuit for the brain.

“Barbie may be one way that ideas about a girls’ place in the world is communicated to the girl,” Sherman said.

The journal article wryly concludes, “Perhaps Barbie can ‘Be Anything,’ but girls who play with her may not apply these possibilities to themselves.”

Possibly, but that could be too much of a leap. Maybe a six-year-old who gets the chance to play with a pretty, new doll doesn’t exactly have firefighting on the brain for the next few hours. And obviously, even after their Barbie years are over, the girls are sure to encounter other demoralizing influences.

It’s worth remembering, though, that Barbie has been remade before. In 1971,her eyes were changed to face forward, rather than to be perpetually glancing sideways demurely. Mattel has defended Barbie’s look by saying that her proportions make her easier to dress in miniature doll garments. But it could be that those clothes, even when they’re sciencey and professional, aren’t quite doing their job.


 Does Your Name Determine Your Destiny?

 The idea that our names are intertwined with our destinies goes at least as far back as the book of Genesis in the Bible, when Abram saw his name changed to Abraham, which means  “father of multitudes” in Hebrew.

In more recent years, social psychology research has connected people’s names to decisions they make in whom to marry, what street to live on and what they do for a living — all based on how similar the names were to a person’s own name.

But University of Pennsylvania researcher Uri Simonsohn is stirring controversy by questioning how much our names really matter in making life’s more important decisions. Simonsohn examined whether people are likely to choose their workplaces based on how similar the company names are to their own.

The study, to be published in a forthcoming issue of the journal Psychological Science, is based on a sample of 438,000 Americans who had donated to political campaigns in 2004. It was designed to parallel a similar Belgian study that used a sample that included about a third of the general population and found people were overrepresented by 13 percent at businesses where the first three letters in the name matched those in their own names. (The raw Belgian data was unavailable for the new study.)

After controlling for people working at companies named for themselves or family members, as is common in law firms and other businesses, the effects of name similarity appeared to vanish, Simonsohn found. [Most Popular Names in History]

What’s in a name?

Regarding studies that have found a name-job link, “they’re finding reverse causality rather than some subconscious attraction to names that are similar to your name,” Simonsohn said. [Baby Names Reveal More About Parents Than Ever Before]

But Simonsohn’s findings were contradicted by Frederik Anseel, a professor of industrial and organizational psychology at Ghent University and co-author of the Belgian study.

“We do not really agree with Simonsohn’s points that the potential confounds eliminate the name-letter effect,” Anseel told LiveScience. Anseel has written a response currently under review by Psychological Science.

Cultural differences might account for the discrepancy. Simonsohn points to the possibility that a higher percentage of Americans may start their own businesses. (A direct comparison to Simonsohn’s study would be difficult, Anseel noted, because similar political donations are illegal in Belgium.) Anseel said, however, the effect of name similarity on decisions has been found in several countries around the world.

Anseel said that in light of Simonsohn’s paper, “the effect becomes less strong,” in his own research, but still stands.

Jean Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University, was skeptical that Simonsohn’s study means people don’t have an affinity for companies with names like their own.

“This is not representative of the population in any way, shape or form,” Twenge said of the sample, explaining that the people involved, being political donors, were likely richer and would be more likely to own their own businesses. “This happens to be a variable that affects the variables he’s analyzing.”

Dennis the dentist

Previous research has found an affinity for name similarity in several areas. For example, more dentists are named Dennis than what would be expected by chance. (Although Andrew Gelman, director of theApplied Statistics Center at Columbia University, has noted that dentists only accounts for a fraction of people named Dennis.)

In a previous paper, Simonsohn had critiqued some of that research, including criticizing the idea that people choose spouses with similar names. Simonsohn’s research suggested spousal similarity in names is likely due to ethnicity. Spouses with similar names, he said, emerge from having a similar ethnicity and background; among people of the same ethnicity in his sample, people with more similar names weren’t more likely to marry.

“I’m certainly open to it,” said Simonsohn of the idea of name affinities, adding, “If somebody tells me you base a major decision on a name, I would be skeptical. You need a major piece of evidence to do that.”

But Simonsohn does not completely dismiss the possibility of aconnection between our names and life choices.

He said the most convincing research he has seen came in a 2008 study from the University of Michigan showing that people were more likely to donate following a hurricane if they shared an initial with the name of the hurricane. For instance, if your name were Rachel, you’d be more likely than others on average to donate to Hurricane Rita charities. (The study itself begins with the story of a woman named Katrina selling lemonade to raise money following Hurricane Katrina.)

“That make sense — that is a decision for which people are nearly indifferent,” said Simonsohn, referring to the multitude of good charities where people could donate money. But Simonsohn said his skepticism rises when the decisions are larger – where it would take a significant push to make people choose one option over another. For example, people are unlikely to alter their career choices for $100 or $1,000, he said.

So the notion that we make decisions for unconscious — and sometimes seemingly foolish — reasons may be an uncomfortable one.

“We think it is important to consider that people do not always make rational choices for important decisions in their lives,” Anseel said. “We like to think of ourselves as rational beings making a very deliberate assessment of pros and cons when choosing a job, but our research shows that other factors might come into play without us being aware of it.”


 The Birth Order Effect

Whether you’re a confident but controlling first-born or a resourceful yet restless middle child, your positioning in the family can affect everything from your choice of career to how successful your marriage is

The order we’re born in – first, middle or youngest child – is outside our control. So it can make us uncomfortable to think that our birth order can play a significant part in our success, our personality – the direction of our life. Surely, these things are not set before we even get started? And yet, we all know a ‘typical middle child’, we recognise ‘classic only-child behaviour’. And the over-achievement of the first-born is one of the most consistent findings in child psychology. So how big a role does birth order play?

I’m coming from a vulnerable, emotionally charged and pregnant perspective. I have two daughters, aged five and six, and am about to add a third baby to the mix. At the moment, Ruby, our eldest, has life sussed. She’s independent, educationally gifted and sometimes I think I could leave her in Sainsbury’s and she’d probably look after herself. Tara, her younger sister, is the one who wants the cuddles, who frets if I’m not first at the door when school finishes. The idea that she’ll soon be shoved out of her space as the baby of the family and squashed into the middle fills me with guilt. Is it downhill for her from now on?

The importance of birth order was first set out by the Austrian psychologist Alfred Adler. Michael Grose, an Adlerian-trained parenting expert and author of Why First-borns Rule The World And Last-borns Want To Change It (Random House, £12.99), explains the basics. ‘We’re in a Darwinian struggle from the moment we’re born, fighting for scarce resources within a family – our parents’ time, love and affection,’ he says. Through human evolution, birth order has determined who inherits power (the first-born) and who is sent to war (the youngest as he was the ‘spare’).

First born

Historically, first-borns have been less likely to die in infancy, are less susceptible to disease and, as adults, are more likely to reproduce. They are their parents’ ‘blue-chip security’, whose birth is most eagerly anticipated, whose first steps, first words, first everythings are celebrated. ‘Typical first-borns are appro-val-seeking missiles,’ says Grose. ‘They’ve been showered with attention and identify strongly with power.’ First-borns are thought to be conscientious and achievement-oriented. A study of Norwegians born between 1912 and 1975 found that educational achievement was highest in first-borns and diminished the further down the birth order you got, despite little difference in IQ. The legal profession is, says Grose, filled with first-borns. World leaders are also overwhelmingly first-born children. On the negative side, first-borns are the only ones who experience having their parents all to themselves, then having to share them. For this reason, they’re thought to be anxious, emotionally intense, defensive and prone to jealous rages.

These are all characteristics that fit Sarah Ruskell, 43. The eldest of three, she’s a successful academic, married with three children. As a child, she was serious, bookish and mature. ‘I had a younger sister and brother who were much naughtier on a daily basis,’ she says. ‘But if I was pushed, if they messed up my room or touched my records, I’d rage. Any threat to my power, I suppose.’

Another characteristic of first-borns, according to Frank Sulloway, author of Born to Rebel (Abacus), is caution and aversion to risk. They’re the least likely to travel or be physically daring. Again, this fits Sarah. While her middle brother took up hang-gliding and both siblings backpacked round the world, Sarah’s biggest adventure to date is a thunderstorm in France. Many theorists group only children among first-borns ­– although they never experience having to share their parents, nor the frictions, fights or fondness that comes with siblings. For this reason, they feel like outsiders, distanced from much of life. The only child is thought to be extremely mature, aloof, someone who expects a special standing.

Middle child

So what about the middle child? According to Darwinian theory, they lose out as they are neither the precious, able, oldest,­ nor the vulnerable youngest. Their strength is that they learn to be more flexible and sociable, to compromise and build coalitions. ‘Middle children tend to be more relaxed,’ says Grose. James, 39, is a typical case. Born between his sister and brother, he has always been easy-going, and loves to be surrounded by friends. Yet his affability comes at a price. ‘I turned my back on becoming a pro rugby player because I lacked competitive drive,’ he says. As the first-born boy, James didn’t struggle to establish his own identity as some middle-borns do, but, he says, ‘if I wanted something I definitely had to shout the loudest to make myself heard’.

Gemma, 33, the middle of three sisters, found it harder to carve out her niche. ‘I lived in my older sister’s shadow, and was overlooked in favour of my younger sister,’ she says. ‘I felt left out, and overcompensated by forging friendships outside the family.’ She also became a skilled negotiator. ‘As a “middle” I was the peacemaker. I still use those skills now, and I’m good at seeing everyone’s point of view.’

Last born

The youngest children are more likely to question the order of things, and develop a ‘revolutionary personality’. Many last-borns choose a completely different path to their older siblings to avoid direct competition. They are the babies of the family, and may grow up expecting others to take responsibility. ‘They’re not life’s volunteers,’ says Grose. ‘They’re more likely to put others in service.’ As the youngest of three, I can recognise myself in that. Growing up, I was the most likely to have blazing rows with my dad, I sympathised with the underdog and I’m not a volunteer. (At family get-togethers, I’m still the least helpful.) But a lonely outsider, struggling with an inferiority complex? It seems harsh to condemn anyone to this description simply on the basis of where they stand in the family.

Grose admits the effects of birth order can vary according to different factors, including temperament, gender and age gap. Lucy McDonald is the third of five children, but was the first girl. ‘I’ve got a mix of middle and oldest child traits,’ she says. ‘You can have an easy-going first-born, which will ease the competition all the way down,’ says Grose. ‘If the children are the same sex, the competition is more extreme –­ two boys close together produces the most rivalry, and, generally, the closer the age gap, the more dramatic the birth-order effect. When the gap is more than five years, it’s greatly diminished.’ Grose has found birth order a useful tool when dealing with adult clients. ‘Recently, I was approached by a professional in her forties who was basically worn out,’ he says. ‘She admitted that, as a child, she was always playing catch-up with her sister, who was two years older than her. She had always tried to run as fast and be as clever, and the pattern had played out her whole life. As an adult, she was competitive in everything ­– she’d replaced her older sister with her colleagues, her boss, her friends. Despite career success, she was never happy with herself. Helping her see the problem through the context of birth order put her on the path to understanding and modifying her behaviour patterns.’

Cliff Isaacson, author of Birth Order Effect for Couples (Fair Winds, £9.99), believes birth order can even help you find a partner. ‘Two third-borns make the best couples,’ he says. ‘They relate without conflict, there’s a lot of humour and they make a protective environment for their children. Two first-borns rarely connect, there’s no compromise, it’s not a happy relationship.’

According to Isaacson, however, birth order is not a fixed state. ‘It’s a set of strategies developed in childhood to cope with your siblings (or lack of them), parents and the family situation,’ he says. ‘As you get older, you may learn other ways of interacting with your peers. The best reason for studying your birth order is to understand yourself or your children a little better – then overcome it.’

Are you a born leader? More than half the US Presidents, every US astronaut and most Nobel prize-winners have been either first born or an only child. Typical professions are law, politics, science and accountancy.

First-borns: Bill and Hillary Clinton, George W Bush, Saddam Hussein, Benito Mussolini, Adolf Hitler (actually his mother’s first surviving child), Kylie Minogue, Cherie Blair.

Only children: Winston Churchill, Joseph Stalin, Franklin D Roosevelt, Jean Paul Sartre, Burt Bacharach, Frank Sinatra, Tiger Woods.

Middle children: many middle children work in retail, sales, fashion, advertising or the caring professions. Stella McCartney, Michelle Pfeiffer, Jacqueline du Pré, Princess Diana, Cindy Crawford, Cate Blanchett, Emily Brontë.

Last children: thought to be rebels, non-conformists, also drawn to creative professions and performing arts. Joan of Arc, Mahatma Gandhi, Charles Darwin, Leon Trotsky, Charlie Chaplin, Hugh Grant, Johnny Depp.


 Sex Hormones Impact Career Choices, Psychologists Find in New Study

Teacher, pilot, nurse or engineer? Sex hormones strongly influence people’s interests, which affect the kinds of occupations they choose, according to psychologists.

“Our results provide strong support for hormonal influences on interest in occupations characterized by working with things versus people,” said Adriene M. Beltz, graduate student in psychology, working with Sheri A. Berenbaum, professor of psychology and pediatrics, Penn State.

Berenbaum and her team looked at people’s interest in occupations that exhibit sex differences in the general population and are relevant to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) careers. The researchers studied teenagers and young adults with congenital adrenal hyperplasia — a genetic condition — and their siblings who do not have CAH.

People with CAH are exposed to more androgen — a type of male sex hormone — than is normal while in the uterus. Females with CAH are genetically female and are treated as females, but their interests tend to be more similar to stereotypically male ones.

The researchers report in the current issue of Hormones and Behavior that females with CAH were significantly more interested than females without CAH in careers related to things compared to careers related to people. The researchers also found that career interests directly corresponded to the amount of androgen exposure the females with CAH experienced — those exposed to the most androgen in the uterus showed the most interest in things versus people.

“We took advantage of a natural experiment,” said Berenbaum. “We’re suggesting that these interests are pretty early developing.”

Females without CAH had less interest than males in occupations related to things, such as engineer or surgeon, and more interest in careers focused on interacting with people, such as social worker or teacher. There was no significant difference reported between males with CAH and males without the condition.

“We found there is a biological influence on that interest toward things, so maybe women aren’t going into STEM careers because what they’re interested in — people — isn’t consistent with an interest in STEM careers,” said Beltz. “Maybe we could show females ways in which an interest in people is compatible with STEM careers.”

The researchers asked the participants to rate each item in a list of 64 occupations, according to whether they would like, dislike or were indifferent to doing that job. The occupations were grouped into six categories of careers — realistic, investigative, artistic, social, enterprising and conventional. This list and the categories are based on a well-established and validated system often used by vocational counselors.

The realistic and investigative categories reflect thing-oriented careers like farmer and scientist, social and artistic categories reflect people-oriented jobs such as teacher and artist, and the enterprising category was in the middle with occupations like realtor and hotel manager.

Also working on this research was Jane L. Swanson, professor of counseling psychology, Southern Illinois University Carbondale.

The National Institutes of Health supported this research.


 

 

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