The sibling gap and the pecking order

by fpman

This article offers a discussion of anecdotal evidence (from psychotherapists) related to a (supposedly) growing income gap (even) between siblings in the United States. Its main thread is the story of a brother and a sister – brother an entrepreneur who worked hard to go to college and then succeed, and sister who didn’t.

The choice of this kind of story may be seen as cherry-picking, a little bit. The dominant understanding in the article seems to be, as a result, that it is primarily a function of individual merit how much one succeeds. It does bring in some alternative perspectives, and to some degree it was intended to be neutral in its assessment, but in the end the article comes across as inclining in that direction.

The way it quotes Dalton Conley, a sociologist, reflects this:

“A decade ago, sociologist Dalton Conley produced research suggesting that income inequality in America occurs as much within families as among them. Yet the similarities tend to end there.

In comparing yourself with rich strangers, Conley notes, you can always convince yourself that they inherited wealth or attended elite schools or had parents with connections to lucrative jobs.

That doesn’t work if your brother or sister becomes wealthy. A disparity in siblings’ fortunes can feel, Conley says, like a judgment on intelligence or drive.

“You had pretty much the same advantages and disadvantages growing up,” says Conley, author of The Pecking Order: Which Siblings Succeed and Why.”

Conley, however, is actually recognized for his work in comprehensively reviewing the many different factors simultaneously at play in the background of the sibling gap.

Biology may play a distinguishing role in the first place but parents often themselves create or reinforce differences by criticizing and praising siblings regarded as inferior or superior, respectively — unintentionally or at times intentionally allowing the emergence of a “pecking order” within the family. Gender plays a role, too, of course: parents may favour boys to become high-achievers, and in fact society does much the same, too, not to mention the old discourse over whether women can have it all. Random things make a big difference as well: different life situations may put a very different burden on a brother or a sister.

I dare add: these variables may also interact. For example, the more a society is competitive the more it reinforces any gap that may have emerged during the siblings’ upbringing.

Thus, however Conley ended up saying what he said in the above brief statement, he would most likely readily point out himself that you may believe that “you had pretty much the same advantages and disadvantages growing up” even when it is not really the case. Let’s add that it may also be a problem if you know or feel that you didn’t have the same chances and you are frustrated by this: by the unfavorable pecking order, and that others may see your protestations about it as, simply, the cognitive dissonance reduction of a loser.

By the way, Conley’s first example in his 2004 book (“The Pecking Order: Which Siblings Succeed and Why”) is that of the Clinton (half-)brothers (Bill and Roger). There the argument is apparently that Roger got “a false sense of invincibility” out of Bill’s experience.

Bill_and_Roger_ClintonThe Clinton (half-)brothers