Invisible Shapers:Does the Relative Age Effect Extend Beyond Sports?

The sources of our unequal treatment of one another possess importance because if and when we wish to be serious about grand inspirational abstractions like “equal opportunity”, we need to know where to aim policy and behavioral changes. I think it fair to say that the flow or trickle of compassion and understanding toward marginalized individuals and groups depends on the extent to which we identify sources of unequal treatment as residing within (1)the choices of the individual (He just does not try or work at a high level!) or beyond the reach of our choices, i.e.,(2) external factors such as what Robert Burton calls “the hidden shapers.” (He won or lost the birth lottery.)

Sports, dance, cheerleading, and even academic competitions among young people are commonly won by those in a particular age category who have received the most attention and training from parents and coaches. Imagine, for example, that a parent or coach is trying to decide which of the 2 aspiring football players in the picture above should be selected for and nurtured with advanced soccer training. The answer is commonly affected by  the “relative age effect” or RAE.

The RAE refers to the disproportionate magnitude of high achieving adults in activities where skills were developed early through advanced training (and their competitions had an age-cutoff)  who were born in January-March. This birth effect results because coaches and parents are making judgments about talent from among a group of young people where some are perhaps 10 month older than others. This 10-month age gap within a cohort of 60-year olds is probably minimal in effect when comparing their levels of performance. But the rapid pace of cognitive and physical development among young people results in clearly observable leaps among the “older” 6 -12 year-olds.

Consequently, through no malicious intent whatsoever, children born early in the year benefit from special training and expectations. The fruit of their unearned achievements ripens for many seasons because as adults they surely continue to benefit from the disproportionate amount of attention, nurturing and family resources their “early talent” yielded.  Effect size?  Answering that question should keep dozens of professors busy as they move toward tenure.

But my primary curiosity is what is asked in the title to this post.  Is the relative age effect a phenomenon that extends its reach into non-sports venues?  If significant numbers of young people are in activities where participants are grouped by age, (and there is an age cut-off period for participation), would a person born in January-March be more likely to have adult accomplishments stemming from a greater likelihood of having what Carol Dweck calls a “growth mindset”?  Would the successes and failures in early competitions create or help create self perceptions that drive later successes and failures?

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