Siblings Rarely Share Personalities

This report that NPR did on Morning Edition this morning was great.  It tackles why we tend to end up so different from our siblings despite having the same family.  It is truly fascinating.

Turns out that on tests that measure personality — stuff like how extroverted you are, how conscientious — siblings are practically like strangers. […]  In fact, in terms of personality, we are similar to our siblings only about 20 percent of the time.

Is anyone with a sibling surprised by this stat?

There are three theories about why this is true.

#1: Divergence

In the context of a family, one of the main things that’s happening is that children are competing for the time, love and attention of their parents. […]  So if one child in a family seems to excel at academics, to avoid direct competition, the other child — consciously or unconsciously — will specialize in a different area, like socializing.

#2: Environment (This is SO interesting)

Though from the outside it appears that we are growing up in the same family as our siblings, in very important ways we really aren’t. We are not experiencing the same thing.

“Children grow up in different families because most siblings differ in age, and so the timing with which you go through your family’s [major events] is different,” says Susan McHale, a researcher at Pennsylvania State University. “You know, a parent loses a job, parents get divorced. If you are three or five years behind your sibling, the experience of a 5-year-old whose parents get divorced is very different from the experience of a 9-year-old or a 10-year-old.”

#3: Exaggeration

The final theory is the comparison theory, which holds that families are essentially comparison machines that greatly exaggerate even minor differences between siblings.

I just think this is so amazing and important, to move the spotlight away solely from the parents and to point it also at one’s siblings (or, really, other people who you are in close contact with in your home life).  We love to point to people’s parents immediately when we discuss who they are and why.  The picture is never so narrow, is it?

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9 thoughts on “Siblings Rarely Share Personalities

  1. This is really interesting to me, because even though my brother is five years older than i am and a different gender, we actually do have very similar personalities. There are some differences, of course, but we’re very alike, and I’d always just assumed most siblings were like that!

  2. Ok I thought this was interesting too. But explanation # 1 is slightly aggravating to me–the language about competition, specialization, etc etc reminds me of the dominance of capitalism in interpretation of social relationships–here is a clear cut way in which basic social relationship between siblings is being reworked through the values of a democratic capitalist marketplace–It doesn’t seem especially radical to me to accept that siblings are different b/c they have accepted that a pecking order exists and they don’t specialize to get an equal share of parents’ attention but in order to carve out a niche that is appropriate/fitting to their role. But that’s speaking as an eldest.

  3. #2 was really the most interesting to me. I had heard of birth order determining certain characteristics, but hearing it explained this way blew my mind.

    My sister and are almost 6 years apart, and we really have nothing in common except our mother. We don’t agree on anything, and to hear us talk about our upbringing and outsider would probably doubt we lived in the same house. Realizing that our perspectives differ to much at least partially because of our respective ages/maturity during certain events in our family is fascinating.

  4. I know I’m not surprised by this at all. But if everyone were the same, it really would be boring. I know I hear that alot but it is true. Happy Holidays

  5. But we live in a democratic capitalist marketplace (or at least in a society that thinks it is working as a democratic capitalist marketplace) so it would make sense to me that people construct their identities using patterns that seem natural to them. For me, this is just another example of how we are “modern” in our identity formation. You’re right that it doesn’t have to be that way and that this idea comes from a specific place but that doesn’t mean that it’s wrong (which, maybe you aren’t saying it’s wrong).

    Clearly the person who put this together and for other social scientists who study these things, explanation wasn’t enough of reasoning or else no one would have bothered with 2 or 3. So, you obviously weren’t the only one aggravated by the limitations of that interpretation of sibling identity.

  6. Regarding explanation #2 – it’s not just that some events will be dealt with differently, but depending on age, some events may be completely different for different siblings. My brothers are 8 & 10 years older than me, and were heavily involved in raising me as a younger child – to the point where I almost had four parents rather than two brothers and two parents. So when first one than the other left for college, it was a happy, world expanding time for them, while I was quite literally bereft. I lost half my primary caregivers at age 8, they never lost them at all.

  7. Pingback: 2010 in review « Speaker's Corner

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