The Unconscious Influence of Names: What is Really Going On?
Turns out that your name is more influential than you think. In a study released back in January (due for publication this August), researchers found that the “speed with which adults acquire items [correlates] to the first letter of their childhood surname.” This means that when it comes to purchasing goods, people with last names that begin with a letter closer to the end of the alphabet tend to acquire items faster than people with last names that begin with a letter closer to the beginning of the alphabet. They call it the “Last Name Effect,” and hypothesize that it is caused by “childhood ordering structure.” In their words, “since those late in the alphabet are typically at the end of lines, they compensate by responding quickly to acquisition opportunities.”
Sounds a bit far-fetched, but the study compliments other research which also illustrates how names unconsciously influence our behavior. A study back in 2002 demonstrates that names “nudge” some major life decisions such as where to live, what profession to work in, and whom to marry. As Jonathan Haidt explains:
People named Dennis or Denise are slightly more likely than people with other names to become dentists. Men named Lawrence and woman named Laurie are more likely to become lawyers. Louis and Louise are more likely to move to Louisiana or St. Louis, and George and Georgina are more likely to move to Georgia… [and] people are slightly more likely to marry people whose names sound like their own, even if the similarity is just sharing a first initial
There is more, another study found that “alphabetic name ordering on multi-authored academic papers… is to the advantage of people whose last name initials are placed early in the alphabet.” This means that if your last name is Anderson, you would have, on average, published more articles and had a more successful career than if your name is Zimmerman.
These findings add to the growing body of literature that continues to demonstrate how our lives are dictated by unconscious influences in both the day-to-day and long-term. They aren’t painting an entirely consistent picture, however. For example, while the “Last Name Effect” seems advantageous to people with last names that start with letters towards the end of the alphabet, the study on academic papers seems advantageous to people with last names that start with letters towards the beginning of the alphabet. In addition, it is not entirely clear what these studies mean; if we are attracted to careers, places, and people who are similar to our names, do we all need to check our ego?
Points for best first and last A and Z names. Aziz Ansari?
VAN PRAAG, C., & VAN PRAAG, B. (2008). The Benefits of Being Economics Professor A (rather than Z) Economica, 75 (300), 782-796 DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-0335.2007.00653.x
Pelham, B., Mirenberg, M., & Jones, J. (2002). Why Susie sells seashells by the seashore: Implicit egotism and major life decisions. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 82 (4), 469-487 DOI: 10.1037//0022-35188.8.131.529