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Professors Daryl and Rory O’Connor reflect on how being identical twins has influenced their professional lives, plus links to archive content on siblings.

09 April 2020

Below we link to our favourite content from the archive on siblings. First, Professor Daryl O'Connor and Professor Rory O'Connor reflect on how their twin relationship has influenced their work.

Both: Little did we realise in the early 1990s that we would both settle on the same career. Originally from Derry, in Northern Ireland, one of us, Rory, went to Queen's University Belfast to study psychology. The other, Daryl, went to Liverpool University, initially to pursue town and country planning, before being captivated by the classic twin studies that used to be central to undergraduate Psychology 101 classes. In the two decades or so since, being siblings, or more specifically, identical twins, has played a huge part in our careers and has allowed us to collaborate closely on numerous projects, co-author many papers, co-edit a book and to travel the world together. Jon Sutton, Managing Editor of The Psychologist, asked us to reflect on how being twin brothers has influenced our professional lives and our research collaborations.  

Daryl: I can safely say that if I had not been a twin, I would not have become a psychologist. I always remember the excitement of discovering the early twin studies in lectures and thinking that being a twin was pretty unique and special. Looking back, there is an interesting contrast in my mind: after having spent the first 18 years of my life being one of the 'O'Connor twins' at school, I went to university in Liverpool – on my own – and suddenly I felt a little lost, perhaps this was because I was effectively 'twinless'. Was this a subconscious yearning to be a twin again ;-). Interestingly, around this time, Rory seriously injured his knee and was hospitalised for a few weeks. I recall the porter from my university halls of residence knocking on my door to say there was a call for me in the porter's lodge. This was pre-mobile phone days and it was a call from our mother to tell me about Rory's accident. The sense of distance and the potential seriousness of the situation further reinforced this weird new world of being a part-time twin. Thankfully, this didn't last too long and Rory made a full recovery.   

Rory: Clearly I don't know what it is like not to be a twin but I feel incredibly fortunate to be one; I think Daryl and I have a unique bond well beyond being siblings – and I think our three other brothers (who are not psychologists) would agree. Identical twins seem to be 'a thing' in our family, as our father was also an identical twin, which is pretty rare and random. A bit like Daryl, as a child I was fascinated by what I now know as the nature-nurture debate: how we were very similar but also different. For example, I think that Daryl is much more off-hand than me in social situations whereas he thinks that I am the more off-hand one. Perhaps we are less different than I think! The nature/nature stuff definitely sparked an early interest in psychology for me. Also, as a child, I was intrigued that I was right-handed and Daryl was left-handed. Indeed, I remember vividly in my early teens, while watching a TV programme, discovering that our differential handedness was because we were mirror twins (when the egg splits later, usually more than a week after conception)! Apparently, ten per cent of monozygotic twins are mirror twins.

Daryl: From a professional point of view, having a sibling who works in the same field has been hugely beneficial. As well as having a best friend who is always looking out for you, we have been able to rely on each other for honest, impartial and constructive advice. This may be relating to seeking feedback on a draft paper or advice on career decisions right through to helping temper a reply to a particularly irksome email. In all cases, the term 'critical friend' takes on a whole new meaning. It also usefully extends to gaining advice on the appropriateness of the latest shirt of choice. Amusingly, there have been numerous occasions when we've purchased exactly the same apparel, and as a result, when together, we've had to exchange strategic texts in advance to ensure we don't arrive at the same meeting, conference or talk dressed identically!

Rory: Early on in our careers, in particular, having a twin who is also an academic psychologist working in the field was invaluable. Having someone who knows you inside-out, who you can turn to, to help pick up the pieces and protect your self-esteem after the inevitable and repeated failures which are part-and-parcel of academia. Of course, really good colleagues, family and friends can and do this as well; but for as long as I can remember, Daryl has been the first person I turn to when some academic crisis is about to unfold. As Daryl has also said, we are best friends but we are also incredibly honest and constructively critical friends, and I think this mutual critique has made us better psychologists, we hope. We do have disagreements and slightly different approaches to doing things but this has definitely made our collaborations more productive.

Both: It is funny that we have both ended up becoming health psychologists, working in intersecting areas of health and clinical psychology.  This is surprising because at 18 we made a conscious decision to go to university in different cities and to study different things; and as far as we can remember, we didn't even apply to the same cities. This was, in part, because we wanted to establish our own identities. Despite having distinct but overlapping friendship groups at school, we were keen to be independent of each other at university and shake off the, 'oh, you're-one-of-the-O'Connor-twins' moniker. Over the course of our university careers, however, we grew to re-appreciate our friendship and the integral nature of our 'twin-ness' to our personal and professional lives. In 25 years of psychology our interests and our careers have converged in a way that we would probably have resisted in our early 20s. We live in different parts of the UK, but we collaborate quite a bit together, with Daryl bringing his stress expertise to the suicide field and me bringing my suicide and self-harm knowledge to the wider stress and health field.

Both: In terms of downsides, there aren't many. There are many cases of mistaken identity and having to smile knowingly at colleagues we have never met or taking credit for the other's good or bad recent talk, radio interview or TV appearance ;-). But seriously, if we were to choose one, it is that, perhaps understandably, others continually compare us to each other. Despite both of us being competitive by nature, we are not competitive with each other. Others find that hard to believe. But it's true. We both revel in the other's successes and equally, we feel the pain when the other is going through a bad patch. 'Distinct but overlapping' probably sums us up well!

- Daryl O'Connor is Professor of Psychology at the University of Leeds where he leads the Health and Social Psychology Research Group and heads up the Laboratory for Stress and Health Research (STARlab). He is also Chair of the British Psychological Society's (BPS) Research Board and a BPS Trustee. 

- Rory O'Connor is Professor of Health Psychology at the University of Glasgow where he leads the Mental Health & Wellbeing Research Group and directs the Suicidal Behaviour Research Laboratory.

Here are our articles from the archive on siblings:

The sibling spotlight
Rachel Batchelor on the challenges facing the 'forgotten' brothers and sisters of seriously ill children

Children's friendships
Elian Fink and Claire Hughes review the evidence, including sibling relationships

Screwed up, little despots?
Alice Violett turns to late 19th- and early 20th-century psychologists for the origins of stereotypes around children who have no siblings 2016

Rethinking siblings and mental illness
Christopher Griffiths and Jacqueline Sin offer support for the brothers and sisters of people affected by mental illness

Siblings – friends or foes?
Alison Pike, Tina Kretschmer and Judith F. Dunn on what the research says about achieving a harmonious household

From our Research Digest:
Siblings who believe their family has a lower social standing are more likely to experience mental health difficulties – Sofia Deleniv
The stereotype of the narcissistic only child is widespread – but it's wrong – Emily Reynolds
Children with an older brother have poorer language skills than those with a big sister – Matthew Warren
Against expectations, no evidence that toddlers with older siblings have superior Theory of Mind – Christian Jarrett
Only children more creative, less agreeable and it's reflected in their brain structure – Christian Jarrett
What's it like to be a child and your sibling is diagnosed with cancer? – Christian Jarrett
Men and boys with older sisters are less competitive – Christian Jarrett

And here's the best from elsewhere:
Are firstborns really natural leaders? – Klara Sabolova for The Conversation
Myths about only children debunked – Ana Aznar for The Conversation
How joking around with your brothers and sisters shapes your sense of humour – Amy Paine for The Conversation
First-borns may have higher IQ but sibling bonds are what really shape our future – Dieter Wolke for The Conversation
Samantha Simmonds meets Alison Pike – Alison Pike on sibling competition, BBC Radio 4