The Killing of Frank Sulloways “Born to Rebel”

A gramscian prelude

In my critique of Anders Ehnmark’s Antonio Gramsci, one of the passages I criticize is where Ehnmark seems to disregard the influence class background has on peoples thoughts:

“It is ironic how an author can first write about Gramsci that “He does not believe that the class thinks within a man. One must ask the man himself, what he thinks” (Ehnmark, 2006: 60), whereupon he himself then seems to twist reality to conform to typical ideas of liberal Western intellectuals. It should be quite obvious that people, including intellectuals, think their own thoughts. It should however also be obvious that these thoughts are influenced by their experiences and situation in life, in which class is a central component.”

A sceptical skeptic

This is however not the only area where class influence upon one’s political stances has been a subject of discussion.

In addition to being an academic and a leftist politician I have also been a part of the movement for scientific skepticism. This movement is not uniform. One of the best and simplest descriptions of a split in this movement are political – between an environment sprung out of US-style libertarianism, and a newer one, perhaps exemplified by “Atheism plus” where different aspects of social consciousness is brought into the movement. This difference has been important in the internal conflict dubbed “elevatorgate”, as presented in this Buzzfeed article about the incident, and the debate on feminism in the skeptical movement that followed:

“from the beginning, there has been a division in freethought between the humanists, who see atheism as one part of a larger progressive vision for society, and the libertarians, for whom the banishment of God sits comfortably with capitalism, gun rights, and free-speech absolutism.“

Shermer’s attack on Marxism

Now skeptics are humans just like the rest of us, and are of course subject to many of the same quirks. One of these are tormenting facts to fit their preexisting worldview. An extra dimension for skeptics is using skeptical terminology and argumentation to areas that are not as clear cut as natural science. This is often dubbed a “more skeptical than thou” attitude.

My first confrontation with this was when Michael Shermer in his book “Why People Believe Weird Things”, used Frank Sulloway’s “Born to Rebel” in an attempt to disprove the importance of class background in the opinions and political leanings of humans. Sulloway’s thesis is that the birth order is the dominating factor in determining psychological factors like how radical and rebellious a person is.

Here he rejects that class background has any bearing on the political attitudes and launches a family psychological thesis: Children who are born as no. 2 or later siblings are more rebellious and radical than firstborn.

In Shermer’s words:

“For the past hundred years, for example, historians have hypothesized that social class and social class conflict have been the driving forces behind revolutions, both political and scientific. Sulloway has tested this Marxian hypothesis by coding thousands of individuals in dozens of revolutions for their social class and then doing statistical analyses to see whether there really are significant differences in social class on opposing sides in revolutions. It turns out there is not. Marx was wrong, but it took a historian trained in the sciences to discover this fact by running a simple historical experiment.” (p 38)

A bold statement by Shermer, and he has subsequently repeated his praise and confidence in Sulloways work.

A short Gramscian input here, would be that the birth-order-thesis perhaps fits pretty well with what Gramsci terms “common sense”. A simple concrete explanation, that has had a considerable popular following. But is it correct?

A quantitative study on the Norwegian “68’ers”

Few things in recent Norwegian history is as mythical as the so-called “68’er” generation, named by the huge student demonstrations throughout Europe in 1968 and the radicalization that followed.

In 2008, Tor Egil Førland and Trine Rogg Korsvik presented the biggest to date quantitative survey of Norwegian 68’ers – “Ekte sekstiåttere“. In spite of a large data inventory (1,246 respondents) it obviously has the weaknesses that come with self-reporting and relatively low response rate, but it still represents the best quantitative knowledge we have of this generation. Since the study unilateral deals with students at the University of Oslo, it naturally has a somewhat narrow scope, but the University was undoubtedly a radical powerhouse at the time, so the study is certainly interesting.

Frank Sulloway on his hand brings forth statistics showing that both support for Darwin, the Reformation and the French Revolution, historically points toward a “birth order”-conclusion. When talking about events that are so far back in time it is obviously more difficult to obtain statistics of good quality for analysis. It’s hard enough when you can extract university students from registers and send out a questionnaire to two thousand people currently alive. That in itself does not mean that Sulloway wrong, but contrary to Shermer’s presentation his research is very controversial – especially among psychologists.

So what did the Norwegian study say?

Although bourgeois homes were overrepresented among students (as they still are), the Norwegian “education revolution” had brought larger amounts of students with a working class-background to the University. The study is clear – upper class students were generally not among the radicals, they were politically conservative. And while upper-class children were more right-wing, working-class students were even more leftist than middle class students. This study points in a completely different direction than Sulloway’s.

As an appendix, explaining why rich people become politically conservative, a recent psychological study by Paul Piff is interesting. As the Guardian sums it up :

“even thoughts of being wealthy can create a feeling of increased entitlement — you start to feel superior to everyone else and thus more deserving: something at the centre of narcissism.”

Dare we add “and economic liberalism”? Piff calls this “the asshole effect”.

But what about Birth order?

Birth order could of course still be an important psychological factor all through class also is. Are there better studies concentrating on this?

Yes – one recently came, which is the background for me writing this piece. Damian & Roberts studied 377,000 high school students based on their place in family chronology, and they have controlled for a number of factors previous studies have not. The effects they found were statistically significant, but infinitesimal. They can thus not support claims like those of Sulloway.

The online science news source IFLScience! gives an extra kick in Shermer’s (and Sulloway’s) behind when they linking to a Shermer piece, write:

“The perception that one’s order in a family determines personality is so deep-seated that even people famous for their demolitions of pseudoscience attribute scientific revolutions to where the leading figures stood in their family. According to a paper in the Journal of Research in Personality, however, you’d do almost as well relying on astrology.”

The study itself is not openly available. Some more info can be found here.


Sulloway and Shermer tried to dismiss Marxism. All though they, as many, tried to do so attacking a dogmatic form of Marxism disregarding the existence of many Marxisms, they failed. And now their ideas of the importance of birth order should perhaps be dismissed in stead…

Piffs study:

Originally published on The Northern Questions - The Greamsci blog:

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