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What's in a name? Initials linked to success, study shows

Do you like your name and initials? Most people do and, as past research has shown, sometimes we like them enough to influence other important behaviors. For example, Jack is more likely to move to Jacksonville and marry Jackie than is Philip who is more likely to move to Philadelphia and marry Phyllis. Scientists call this phenomenon the name-letter effect and argue that it is influential enough to encourage the pursuit of name-resembling life outcomes and partners.

However, if you like your name too much, you might be in trouble. Leif Nelson at the University of California, San Diego and colleague Joseph Simmons from Yale University, found that liking your own name sabotages success for people whose initials match negative performance labels.

In their first study, Nelson and Simmons investigated the effect of name resemblance on batters strikeouts. In baseball, strikeouts are recorded using the letter K. After analyzing Major League Baseball players performance spanning 93 years, the researchers found that batters whose names began with K struck out at a higher rate than the remaining batters. Even Karl Koley Kolseth would find a strikeout aversive, but he might find it a little less aversive than players who do not share his initials, and therefore he might avoid striking out less enthusiastically, write the authors.

In a second study, the researchers investigated the phenomenon in academia. Letter grades are commonly used to measure students performance, with the letters A, B, C and D denoting different levels of performance. Nelson and Simmons reviewed 15 years of grade point averages (GPAs) for M.B.A. students graduating from a large private American university.

Students whose names began with C or D earned lower GPAs than students whose names began with A or B. Students with the initial C or D, presumably because of an unconscious fondness for these letters, were slightly less successful at achieving their conscious academic goals.

Interestingly, students with the initial A or B did not perform better than students whose initials were grade irrelevant. Therefore, having initials that match hard-to-achieve positive outcomes, like acing a test, may not necessarily cause an increase in performance. However, after analyzing law schools, the researchers found that as the quality of schools declined, so did the proportion of lawyers with name initials A and B.

The researchers confirmed these findings in the laboratory with an anagram test. The result of the test confirmed that when peoples initials match negative performance outcomes, performance suffers. These results, appearing in the December issue of Psychological Science, provide striking evidence that unconscious wants can insidiously undermine conscious pursuits.


Contact: Catherine West
Association for Psychological Science

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