The Twin Experience: First-hand Perspectives on Twins’ Social and Psychological Development
Ruth Ferguson, Howard Community College
Abstract: While twins in many ways are like anyone else, they have a unique experience growing up that ties together and ultimately affects their identity development. The way in which they interact with others is especially impacted, and at the same time their development is significantly impacted by attitudes toward twins in their social environment. In spite of these factors, comparatively little research has been conducted on the dimensions of the twin experience that cause these differences or how to address these effects to support twins’ development. This project builds on prior research by continuing this greater interest in understanding the unique experience of twins, and it focuses specifically on personality. I analyzed qualitative data gathered from semi-structured interviews with four young adult twins that pertain to their experiences and perspectives on this issue. Much of the existing theories about twins have not taken into account the narratives of twins themselves, instead relying on observations by parents, so this method contributes new perspectives. A review of these first-hand accounts of twins indicates that being a twin lends itself well to personality traits of introversion and self-consciousness due to the specific characteristics of the twin relationship. This paper also offers strategies to better promote twins’ development, namely by encouraging twins to establish themselves outside of the twin relationship and encouraging those around them to treat them as individuals.
Don’t always assume that things happen because people are twins. Like for example, I play this game called Blank Slate … It’s like you fill in a blank and you are trying to match with someone with the word that you put in. Sometimes my family might be like ‘Oh you guys are going to match a lot because you are twins,’ but … it’s not like the only reason why we think the same way is because we are twins. … I match with the rest of my siblings and my parents probably just as much … Sometimes we match because we are thinking in the same direction, but it’s like there are so many different directions you could go with that game … For that game, maybe you are thinking alike because you have both watched the same movie and have both read the same book or something that relates to that, so then that’s why you are thinking that way. It’s not like, ‘Oh because you are a twin you thought that way.’ It’s like no, we both have similar knowledge, we’ve learned some of the same things because we attended classes together.
This quote from one of the twins I interviewed highlights how people tend to place a lot of emphasis on one’s twin status. It also shows how many people think they understand what it is like being a twin. In reality, however, much of what people presume to know about twins is inaccurate, and these misconceptions tend to obscure how being a twin really affects an individual.
Due to people’s perceptions of the twin experience, it is not uncommon for people to express the desire to have a twin. Twins themselves, however, express mixed feelings about their twinship because of how their experiences have affected them (Siemon, 1980, p. 387). The unique experience twins have as a result of their twinship influences their development in a way that differentiates them from other individuals (Zazzo, 1976, p. 344). While sibling relationships exert a known effect on child development, the identity development of twins is uniquely connected, as many of them try to differentiate themselves, at least in regard to how they dress, and may have to cooperate to manage how they present themselves (Bacon, 2006, p. 144). Twins also go through a lot of development together since they are often in the same room and engaged in the same activity, which leads them to identify with each other in particular ways (Fortuna et al., 2011, p. 210; Siemon, 1980, p. 389). Additionally, twins are affected by the attitudes that people around them have about twins. For example, if many of their peers view twins as a set, this can make them identify with each other more (Robin, 1999, p. 152). At times, twins face contradictory expectations from their social environment because they may be stigmatized for appearing the same but are still expected to relate with each other (Bacon, 2006, p. 146). It has also been observed that, compared to the non-twin population, twins tend to be more introverted and are less likely to get married (Zazzo, 1976, pp. 345-346).
In spite of these factors, there has been comparatively little research on the dimensions of the twin experience that cause these differences or how to address these effects. Moreover, few studies have involved in-depth commentary from adolescent and adult twins to gauge their own perceptions of how being a twin affected their personality development. Instead, they often rely on observations by parents or take other more indirect approaches. To address this gap in the literature, this project employs interviews in order to explore some of the issues that have been noted in the literature from a different vantage point. I particularly focus on how being a twin affects personality and how to address these effects in order to support twins’ personal and social development—a topic of personal significance due to being a twin myself.
For this study, I conducted semi-structured interviews through Zoom, which on average lasted about 35 minutes. Using convenience sampling, I first invited twins I knew from my community to participate via email. During the interviews, I followed a list of 16 interview questions to guide the discussion (see Appendix). I then analyzed the interview data inductively in addition to taking into consideration my own experiences as a twin to derive general themes to address my research questions. The information I collected is qualitative in nature and pertains to the participants’ experiences and perspectives on this issue of twins’ personality development. There was a total of four participants, all of whom were required to be 18 years of age or older. The participants were all young adult female college students. Throughout this paper, the participants will be referred to by a number to preserve their anonymity.
A review of these first-hand accounts of twins suggests that the twin relationship plays a role in twins being introverted. For one thing, all of the participants expressed that they were introverted when asked about their personality. Moreover, most of them seemed to attribute it in part to their twinship.
One common sentiment that supports this theme is that it is harder for twins to take the initiative to talk to new people when they already have a companion. Interviewee 3, for example, commented:
I think my introvertness definitely was affected by being a twin … Again, just kind of like growing up having this built-in best friend almost felt like I didn’t need to make friends and everything, and so I definitely, over the years, had trouble with making friends and just was more shy generally. I feel like kind of just wanting to play it safe.
Essentially, while most children at a young age are left to their own devices to find friends and soon learn how to be self-sufficient, some twins do not feel compelled to take the initiative to find friends because they already have someone to talk to even if they do not put in the effort. As a result, they do not learn the necessary social skills to communicate with other people, which can make it harder for them in the future to come out of their shell when other people around them are more socially adept. It is also likely that their peers might have already formed close-knit friend groups while they were content with just interacting with their twin, which further complicates making friends.
Another point is that when twins are together, this can give other people the impression that they do not need any other company. Interviewee 1 explained how she felt as though always sitting with her twin in one of her classes made people feel less of a need to come talk to her since she was not alone. For twins who are reserved, this makes it even harder for them to interact with others because they might be counting on other people to approach them. This illustrates how relying on their twin for company seems to cyclically reinforce twins’ introversion, making it harder for them to take the initiative to interact with others but also in some cases making other people less likely to approach them. This cycle can prevent twins from building their social skills since they require practice to do so. I personally relate with this sentiment, as I feel as though some people assume twins are each other’s best friends and just want to be in their own world and so as a result do not interact with them much.
Some twins also grow accustomed to interacting with other people together, so they may feel vulnerable on their own. Interviewee 4 expressed how she found it harder to talk to her peers in college in part because she was now away from her twin since they went to different schools. To some extent, she wished that they had gone to the same school, but she recognized that they had different goals and dreams. This shows that some twins find comfort in each other’s presence, which gives them more confidence in interacting with other people. When interacting with their peers together, twins might be able to get points across more effectively because their twin can likely relate with them and help explain their thoughts. Their twin can also support them in sustaining a conversation because if they do not know what to talk about or if they run out of things to say, their twin can also contribute. This helps relieve some of the pressure they might feel interacting with other people. I have had this experience at times, especially when I was younger, where my twin has helped articulate my thoughts and made me feel less responsible for engaging with people. Under these circumstances, it makes sense that some twins find it hard to adjust when they are separated from each other for extended periods of time.
Interestingly, the rest of the participants in fact found it easier to communicate in college when they were on their own, mostly because they experienced it as a fresh start where they were not already known as a twin, which helped them view themselves as individuals. For example, Interviewee 1 commented:
I find it easier because I don’t feel the need to talk about being a twin. Well, some of our classes I did have with my twin, so then I couldn’t really change anything, but for the classes where my twin wasn’t in the class, then I felt like more of my own person … I can just talk about myself and interact more normally … I can just have one-on-one conversations … People don’t even need to know that I have a twin.
These comments suggest that being known as a twin can interfere with twins’ conversations with their peers since it can result in their twin status being brought to the forefront of discussion. It also can get in the way of them bonding with their peers in one-on-one settings since they might feel obligated to interact with people together. As a result, both twins and their peers might not get to know each other as well, and twins might lose interest in conversing with their peers since they may tire of sharing about being a twin. Going to college, however, can help twins escape this situation and their identity as a twin since those around them will not already know them and will be less likely to see them together, if at all. Being known as an individual can help twins feel more comfortable talking to their peers since it can make them feel more liberated to share about whatever comes to mind without worrying about their twin.
An analysis of the data also suggests that the heightened social awareness of the twin relationship factors into twins being self-conscious. To some degree, all of the participants expressed feelings of self-consciousness stemming in part from their experiences as a twin. Relatedly, they all expressed that they were more nervous than confident.
A key point that supports this theme is that many people compare twins, which tends to make twins feel worse about themselves and less confident. Interviewee 1 strongly related with this idea and commented:
One time in my political science class, we were going around the whole room saying our thoughts about something and like my twin and I said something that was kind of similar but also it was somewhat different, but someone was like, ‘Oh they are saying like the exact same thing.’… But it’s like, in the whole class, a lot of people had a similar idea, and you can have the same opinion about something … He was not saying that about what anyone else said.
Although being compared is not unique to twins, twins expressed the feeling that it happened to them more regularly and often for capricious reasons. As Interviewee 1 expressed, people generally do not find it so noteworthy when two people have similar opinions, but for twins, they might face judgment, which can give them the impression that it is strange for them to think similarly. On the other hand, some people expect twins to be similar and so will find it odd when twins do different things or express different opinions. As a result, twins might feel uncomfortable being themselves. Additionally, comparisons that would normally not be made because they might come across as offensive are sometimes made about twins in an attempt to tell them apart. For example, some people compare twins in different areas to subjectively judge who is better, like who is the nicer twin, which can be hard on the confidence of the twin who is judged to be worse. This has happened to me and my twin on a number of occasions. For instance, I remember a classmate in high school concluding that I was probably the “nice twin” while my twin was the “evil twin,” after another classmate exaggerated that my twin hated a particular teacher. This conversation was discomforting because my classmate seemed so convinced that a dichotomy existed between twins that she did not even hesitate to make an assumption about us with little basis or stop to consider the offense she may cause in labeling us.
In response to these dynamics, twins commonly reported comparing themselves, trying to differentiate themselves, and competing with each other. For instance, Interviewee 2 commented how in addition to trying to dress differently, she “tried to be the smarter twin and get better grades” to show that she is better. Comparing oneself to other people and competing with others is also not unique to twins, but the twin experience lends itself readily to these dynamics since twins are reminded of such comparisons so frequently by their external environment. Although some competition is healthy since it encourages people to strive for improvement and helps them learn about themselves, constantly competing with each other can place significant pressure on twins. If they depend on outperforming their twin to gain validation, this can be harmful to their self-esteem. Moreover, trying to differentiate themselves can make twins feel obligated to do something even if they are not interested in it, which can adversely affect their motivation.
Many twins come to recognize that what their twin does will reflect on them. Interviewee 3 experienced this and commented:
I became pretty aware of the fact that if I did something it was going to reflect on my twin just because of the nature of that relationship and vice versa. If she did something, then I was also going to be looped into it.
Over time, Interviewee 3 perceived how those around her failed to distinguish between her and her twin’s actions and so were likely to attribute whatever one of them did with both of them. This can make twins feel that they not only have to be cautious about their own actions but also have to be concerned about the actions of their twin. Consequently, they may be prone to second-guessing themselves and trying to avoid attention. This situation draws twins together as a pair in some ways because it makes them feel more responsible for each other. However, it can also cause some friction between them, as some twins might try to control each other’s actions or be critical of each other out of their concern over how their twin’s actions will reflect on them.
The feeling of being associated with one another by others makes some twins worry that people will not get to know the real them and see them as individuals. Interviewee 4 expressed this concern and commented:
I think definitely when we went to college, I didn’t really want to tell people that I was a twin because then I would get asked all these questions, like ‘Who’s older?’, ‘Are you fraternal [or] identical?’ … And I feel like they wouldn’t get to know the real me and not just the fact that I am a twin.
This shows that some twins are concerned about being recognized as an individual. They do not want people to only talk with them because they are curious about what it is like being a twin or for people to place too much emphasis on the fact that they are twins. There is so much more to their identity than what many people give them credit for. Despite what some people may believe, twins do not have the exact same personality and interests. In fact, most twins have at least some defining features that distinguish them, yet many people cannot tell them apart. This can become a source of frustration for twins who over the years are frequently mixed up by their peers because it can make them feel as though no one cares about getting to know them on a deeper level. This can in turn make them feel more anxious about how those around them perceive them.
Strategies for Twins
Although twins’ development is affected by various characteristics of the twin relationship, there are strategies they can apply to help promote their development as individuals. The twins interviewed for this study suggested strategies that applied largely to twins’ mindset toward their development.
One such strategy is for twins to try to establish themselves outside of the twin relationship. Interviewee 3 commented:
I think for twins I would say like being aware of the fact that just because you are supposed to be part of this unit doesn’t mean that you have to be. And kind of understanding the value of establishing your own identity and like maybe becoming an individual. And noticing that it’s obviously a little harder for twins to do that than like individual children … Especially when you go out to college and you go out into the working world, you are not always going to be together.
Essentially, it is important for twins to recognize that despite what people may expect of them, they are still their own person. They do not always have to define themselves within the twin relationship and can instead make more decisions for themselves. As Interviewee 3 pointed out, twins are not always going to be together, so it is important that they develop greater independence as opposed to relying on each other too heavily. This seems to have helped many of the twins I interviewed, as most of them felt more capable of interacting with people when they went to college and were exposed to new environments away from their twin.
Another strategy for twins is to avoid focusing disproportionately on being the same as or different from their twin. When discussing the steps she had taken to help her come to terms with her identity as a twin, Interviewee 1 commented:
It’s okay if we want to do the same thing. I don’t always have to go out of my way to do something different. We can like the same things, … just like regular people who are not twins can have similar interests or decide to do some of the same things … I don’t have to feel like I have to do something different from my twin. I mean if I want to do something different that’s up to me, but I shouldn’t feel pressured to be different.
These comments signal a shift in mindset for twins to consider. Too often, twins can feel compelled to do something different from their twin to show people around them that they are distinct individuals. However, twins should not feel obligated to change themselves to meet the expectations of others. They should be encouraged to recognize that even if other people cannot see it, they are still unique individuals. Conversely, some twins feel pressured to do the same things as their twin, which should also be resisted. In both cases, twins’ efforts to change themselves based on comparisons with their twin can interfere with their development. It can make twins be a less authentic version of themselves, and it can get in the way of them achieving personal satisfaction.
A third strategy for twins is to be patient with and correct people who mix them up. Interviewee 4 was particularly concerned about teachers mixing twins up and commented:
I think if a teacher gets one of our names wrong, I would definitely be very offended and kind of upset really … if that ever happened and a little mad maybe. But it’s life, they are not always going to get it the first time, so I think twins should be patient with them.
Many twins can attest to the discomfort they feel when they are mixed up. I certainly can, and all the twins I interviewed shared this sentiment. However, it is important for twins to be patient with people who mix them up. It can be difficult for teachers, or other people in twins’ lives, to tell them apart, but if twins are gracious with them, they will be more likely to put in the effort to learn how to tell them apart. Additionally, some twins grow so frustrated with being mixed up that they eventually do not even bother to correct people. They just start to think that it is inevitable and resign themselves to it. However, if twins do not correct people, then they are giving up the opportunity to effect gradual change in their environment by educating others.
Strategies for Those Around Twins
While twins can take steps on their own to promote their development, those around them can also play a role. Here I separate those strategies between parents, teachers, and peers, although all have in common the core idea of treating twins like individuals.
Parents should recognize that their twins are two different people, call them by their names, and encourage them to explore different things. Interviewee 1 gave the following advice:
For parents, it’s … important to definitely try not to mix up your own children because that’s definitely happened before. And yeah, just like with the whole attributing thing, I feel like that really happens a lot with your family, so parents should learn not to always use words such as the twins. It’s like just use their names instead. … When you are thinking about their future don’t think that they have to do the same things because they might want to do different things.
These comments show how even parents, who of course know their twins much better than other people, are still guilty of sometimes mixing up their twins. Generally, parents can tell their twins apart, but it is not uncommon for them to mistakenly attribute what one twin said or did with the other twin. They also might attribute something with both twins when only one of them was involved. This can be offensive to twins because it can make them feel like even their parents who have known them all of their lives do not care enough to differentiate them. Even when both twins are involved in something, it is better to refer to them by their names so that they are recognized as individuals. It is also important to encourage twins to explore different things as opposed to expecting them to want to do the same things. Interviewee 1 mentioned how parents should not assume their twins will pursue the same things in the future, likely in reference to their future studies and future careers, but this applies even for younger twins who might be interested in pursuing different hobbies. Accordingly, it is important that parents clearly convey to their twins that the door is open for them to do different things if they choose.
Teachers should make the effort to not mix up twins and avoid comparing twins academically. Interviewee 2 talked about how she felt uncomfortable when her art teacher mistook her for her twin in elementary school even though she used to know their names. While it can be hard for teachers to tell twins apart, it is important that they earnestly try because mixing up twins can make them lose respect for their teacher and be less attentive to what they are taught. Even if it does not affect twins’ learning, it still affects them emotionally, as it can cause them to experience self-doubt. It is also important to avoid comparing twins academically because twins have their own strengths and struggles. Just as teachers are expected to differentiate between any other student in order to support them at whatever level they may be, they ought to do the same for twins instead of mistakenly assuming otherwise. Even when twins do score at roughly the same level, teachers should avoid comparing twins academically because this places too much pressure on them.
Peers should try to interact with twins and get to know them beyond their twin status. When asked about advice for other people who interact with twins, Interviewee 3 commented:
I guess seeing twins as individuals and not just being like ‘Oh they are twins okay, so they are like together all the time. They have the same personality.’ I think society kind of has this view of twins like ‘Oh they can read each other’s minds, like they are this really crazy occurrence, and they are always together. They are the exact same person duplicated.’ I feel like just recognizing that that is not necessarily true and there is a lot of intricacies to being a twin and kind of recognizing that twins aren’t the same person, even if they are identical.
Interviewee 3’s comments reflect on the frequency with which people hold misconceptions and stereotypes about twins, which influences how they interact with them. When others are convinced that twins are the same, this can blind them to what makes each twin a unique individual and prevent them from getting to know them on a deeper level. Under these circumstances, many twins experience feelings of self-consciousness and/or diminished self-esteem. If, on the other hand, peers express interest in getting to know twins as individuals and treat twins like they would anyone else, this can help twins feel more confident in themselves. Also, assuming twins are always together can make peers feel like twins will not want their company, but most twins still want to interact with others. Moreover, spending a lot of time around each other can make twins feel an even greater desire to meet new people since they may feel like they already see enough of each other at home even if they are close.
As discussed by the individuals interviewed for this study, certain aspects of the twin relationship may tend to engender personality traits of introversion and self-consciousness. This paper has illuminated how those dimensions of the twin experience influence twins’ personality development and has also shared interviewees’ reflections on how these dynamics can be managed more successfully. Twins are encouraged to establish themselves outside of the twin relationship, and those around them are encouraged to treat twins as individuals. Applying these strategies can help support twins’ personal and social development.
Since this study employed convenience sampling to gather data from a small group of interviewees, the questions explored here should be explored further with a larger sample size. This would make it possible for different subgroups of twins to be compared by age, gender, and twin type (monozygotic vs dizygotic), which could help provide a more comprehensive understanding of this issue. Additional issues in personality and identity development among twins could also be explored, such as how being a twin affects self-esteem—an issue discussed only briefly here. Regardless, this paper does effectively establish the value of direct engagement with twins’ experiences and narratives for understanding the twin experience with greater depth and nuance.
Bacon, K. (2006). ‘It’s good to be different’: Parent and child negotiations of ‘twin’ identity.
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Fortuna, K., Goldner, I., & Knafo-Noam, A. (2011). Twin relationships: A comparison across
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Robin, M. (1999). A typology of the three-year-old twin sibling relationship drawn from two
different environments: School and home. European Journal of Psychology of Education, 14(1), 141-159. https://libproxy.howardcc.edu/login?url=https://www-proquest-com.libproxy.howardcc.edu/scholarly-journals/typology-three-year-old-twin-sibling-relationship/docview/1889744183/se-2?accountid=35779
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Appendix: Interview Questions
1. What are some of your most memorable experiences that relate to being a twin? Describe what happened and why these experiences stick out to you.
2. Have you ever felt like your life would be different if you were not a twin? If so, how do think your life would be different?
3. How would you describe your personality (socially, emotionally, etc.)? [clarifying questions]
a. Are you more introverted or extroverted?
b. Are you more imaginative or conventional?
c. Are you more nervous or confident?
d. Are you more friendly or challenging?
e. Are you more organized or spontaneous?
4. Do you think any aspects of your personality have been affected by being a twin? How so?
5. Is there anything your parents have done when raising you that you think was beneficial for your personal and social development as a twin? Please explain.
6. What are some things you think your parents could have done better when raising you to support your development as a twin?
7. Growing up, how have your interactions with your peers impacted how you view yourself within the context of being a twin? Are there any interactions with peers that have made you more self-conscious about being a twin? Explain.
8. How have your interactions with teachers affected how you view yourself within the context of being a twin?
9. Growing up, how have you tended to interact with your twin? How close have you been?
10. Some twins try to differentiate themselves by cooperating with each other to dress up differently. Have you ever actively tried to differentiate yourself from your twin? If so, what did you do? Do you still try to do this or is it less of an issue now?
11. How has going to college impacted how you interact with your twin? Do you get along differently now or is it the same?
12. How has going to college impacted how you interact with peers? Do you find it easier to communicate with your peers now or harder?
13. A dominant theory about twins is that twins who have been raised as a unit experience various psychological problems when they separate. How do you feel about this theory? Do you think it makes sense and do you think it will ever apply to you?
14. How have your perceptions about your identity as a twin changed throughout your life?
15. Are there any steps that you have taken that you think have helped you come to terms with your identity as a twin? What are they?
16. What advice do you have for twins and other people that interact with them, such as peers and teachers, in relation to their personal and social development?