Order Up: Sequence and Bias

How great is it to be first? First dibs, prime cut, gold medal, world record, corner office — being first means you get it all. If you’re the oldest sibling, you already know this is true. Oldest siblings are the best! No bias here. Just saying.

If you’re second, well, you might just have to resort to the classic lines: First the worst, second the best…

Studies, though, are always trying to back up at least one side of every argument — if not both.

Looking at the impact of birth order on job success, a recent study found that it’s good to be first. Sure, “they just have all kinds of advantages in life,” but researchers also discovered that oldest children are more likely to become CEOs than their younger siblings. Anybody who recognizes that royal dynasties and family businesses often pass to the oldest son won’t find this statistic too surprising. Still, do eldest children just deserve more? Are they always better qualified?

Researchers discovered that oldest children are more likely to become CEOs than younger siblings. Click To Tweet

There’s no question that the eldest child gets more attention from their parents. Of course, they just show up earlier, so they have plenty of time to accumulate all that love and good will and that kind of thing. But does this make them smarter? Better? Maybe not.

An interesting exception uncovered in the same study is that there’s no apparent birth-order effect when the CEO is also the founder of the firm. Willingness to try new things and take more risks might actually be characteristics of later born children.

What, they just want to see for themselves? Everything else is already taken so they have to venture forth? There’s plenty of backing for this idea in all kinds of fairy tales and other stories. The third child, of course, is different, and wins the day in some unexpected way. Hip hip, hooray, happily ever after!

So, what to do? Keep in mind: order isn’t everything. It can be great to be oldest or youngest, first or last. All kinds of other things matter, like skills, interests, training, and more. So, decide for yourself. Don’t play favorites.

Easy to say, right? When shown a list, plenty of readers will choose the first (primacy bias!) or the last (recency bias!). Does it mean the other options are bad? Nope. It’s just how the mind works sometimes.

It’s easier to be fair when bias is eliminated. While this might not be so easy in a family, it’s much easier in a survey. When you’re worried about biasing participants, rotate or randomize display of answer options. This ensures that answer order doesn’t unfairly bias participants toward either the first or last options, allowing each answer to stand on its own merits.

So? Be fair. No matter the options or their order, give each a chance!


Want more about using answer sequence? Help yourself!