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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?

The unconscious influence of names has been well documented at this point – it is nothing new really – but researchers are still trying to figure out what to make of the findings. Any ideas?

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//0022-3514.82.4.469

9 Comments Post a comment
  1. I would think that for the norm, these advantages apply for the hoi polloi and those who are mediocre at best and these little slight “advantages” like having your paper at the top of the stack serves a slight advantage. If you have tremendous talent, passion, and drive your name can be Zelda Zoriason and you can be a New York Times Best Seller.
    Maybe other people who haven’t truly developed themselves and their identity, do subconsiously use their name as an identifying factor and as a means to find compatibility with another, I have to say I find this tremendously horrifying and cannot express how JUST a name isn’t a means to showing what a person is. A person with a strong sense of self will be looking for specific qualities, and focused on exactly what they want, not aimlessly drawn in by a name starting by the same letter as theirs! Thats preposturous! ( Now watch, I’ll go out and meet the love of my life tonight and his name will be Eric, that would soo be my luck… hah.)
    I do have something interesting to add though in your favor, as much as I find it as an assault on basic logic to say such things about names…. I must admit, I too have had a couple of inexplainable experiences with names, which have left me nonplussed. First, I have dated not just one or two but skip up to SIX chris’s and the last one was THE WORST. And I promise if I ever meet another one I will not walk I will RUN in the opposite direction. I know, It sounds CRAZY but SIX and they all turned out to be a wolf in sheeps clothing. Nope, six is a charm for me. lol. And for girls, Krystal. 3 girls named Krystal, one of them I knew for 8 years and she ended up doing unimaginable things. So, in that light, I do acknowledge there is something to names, but I agree with you- I don’t know what. I just think the studies couldn’t be any further from what could be relevant.

    August 5, 2011
    • sammcnerney #

      Sounds like we agree, but I remind you that the unconscious biases these studies illustrate are very very slight. In other words, they are not nearly powerful enough to prevent a talented person from succeeding, as you have pointed out.

      August 5, 2011
      • You’re right, I guess that’s what makes thats what makes the study all the more interesting is maybe factoring out all of the personal ablities and talents of the individual, and solely looking at what impact a name can have on a person and how that can influence and or subconsiously redirect their path, while they are on their journey. Wow, I totally missed the whole point didn’t I. It appears I am the complete moron here. That would be the complicated part wouldn’t it trying to isolate what effect the name has for each individual and what is driven by their own unique abilities. Hmmm, well I sure if they keep trying to approach studies from different angles they’ll find something a little more individual. There is something to it, I think. Just like the way there is absolutely a connecting factor to the time of year you are born and your personality… why not your name and who you’re with and the job you do…. well it would be awful hypocritical of me to say it would be illogical or nonsensical… I love it when I speak in haste. I will definitely be taking note of everyones name I meet from this day on, now I’m just curious.

        August 6, 2011
  2. Seems like a good next step would be to see if similar things hold true elsewhere, like in Greater China. I can’t imagine too many “ya” named people become “ya Yi” (dentists)! Should make a nice test, no?

    August 13, 2011
    • sammcnerney #

      That sounds like an interesting idea! Get back to me if you ever undertake this study.

      August 14, 2011
  3. Shannon #

    What about the name Shannon? What would I be most attracted to doing?

    March 29, 2012
  4. Katie #

    I find this all very, very interesting – I have always put a lot of weight on names, but I could never pinpoint why. I seem to always have a strong attraction towards guys who’s names begin with D’s, or who’s names happen to be Kyle or Tyler, and yet I romantically end up with a George and I feel as though it fits my Katie perfectly. Also, I was recently having a conversation with my best friend Jamie (J and K, another thing I find myself doing a lot!) about how all of the girls I know named Desiree turn out to be a little on the floozy side, and she agreed! The second I hear a name, I make a judgement based on all of the other people I know with that name, so names mean a lot. Lastly, I have had many professors, managers, coworkers, etc tell me that my first and last name is a very memorable name, and reminds them of someone famous, which is why they often favor me or keep me around – it leaves a lasting impression on them. So although names are not the complete driving force behind a person and their life or success, it’s amazing what impressions they give on people and how just a name itself can really shape the way people look at you upon first meeting, or even remember you later on!

    April 3, 2012
  5. i have been rednaig rednaig a good series called maximum ride where 6 kids have been geneticly engineered into bird kids that have wings and can fly!!! the place they had lived they called the school. it was where scientist they call white coats had preformed painful experiments on them they escaped and now are trying to survive and not get caught while evil wolf men called erasers track them down. i think this series is a good page turner and has you setting on the edge of your seat.

    February 7, 2013
  6. Keith Richardson #

    The reason I encountered this article is because I was searching for a correlation between people whose name begins with “J” and a high rate of eccentric behavior.
    I have observed over the years that people who’s first name begin with “J” are either odd or have personality traits that stand out.
    This seems more prevalent in men.
    Although women are hardly immune.
    It sounds rediculous, I know. But I have seen very few exceptions.
    I’d like to know if anyone else has noticed this.

    December 9, 2014

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