What's In A Name?

by Scott Alexander2 min read29th Jun 2009139 comments


Heuristics & BiasesSocial & Cultural Dynamics

   Marge: You changed your name without consulting me?
   Homer: That's the way Max Power is, Marge.  Decisive.
The Simpsons

In honor of Will Powers and his theories about self-control, today I would like to talk about my favorite bias ever, the name letter effect. The name letter effect doesn't cause global existential risk or stock market crashes, and it's pretty far down on the list of things to compensate for. But it's a good example of just how insidious biases can be and of the egoism that permeates every level of the mind.

The name letter effect is your subconscious preference for things that sound like your own name. This might be expected to mostly apply to small choices like product brand names, but it's been observed in choices of spouse, city of residence, and even career. Some evidence comes from Pelham et al's Why Susie Sells Seashells By The Seashore:

The paper's first few studies investigate the relationship between a person's name and where they live. People named Phil were found more frequently than usual in Philadelphia, people named Jack in Jacksonville, people named George in Georgia, and so on with p < .001. To eliminate the possibility of the familiarity effect causing parents to subconsciously name their children after their place of residence, further studies were done with surnames and with people who moved later in life, both with the same results. The results held across US and Canadian city names as well as US state names, and were significant both for first name and surname.

In case that wasn't implausible enough, the researchers also looked at association between birth date and city of residence: that is, were people born on 2/02 more likely to live in the town of Two Harbors, and 3/03 babies more likely to live in Three Forks? With p = .003, yes, they are.

The researchers then moved on to career choices. They combed the records of the American Dental Association and the American Bar association looking for people named either Dennis, Denice, Dena, Denver, et cetera, or Lawrence, Larry, Laura, Lauren, et cetera. That is: were there more dentists named Dennis and lawyers named Lawrence than vice versa? Of the various statistical analyses they performed, most said yes, some at < .001 level. Other studies determined that there was a suspicious surplus of geologists named Geoffrey, and that hardware store owners were more likely to have names starting with 'H' compared to roofing store owners, who were more likely to have names starting with 'R'.

Some other miscellaneous findings: people are more likely to donate to Presidential candidates whose names begin with the same letter as their own, people are more likely to marry spouses whose names begin with the same letter as their own, that women are more likely to show name preference effects than men (but why?), and that batters with names beginning in 'K' are more likely than others to strike out (strikeouts being symbolized by a 'K' on the records).

If you have any doubts about the validity of the research, I urge you to read the linked paper. It's a great example of researchers who go above and beyond the call of duty to eliminate as many confounders as possible.

The name letter effect is a great addition to any list of psychological curiosities, but it does have some more solid applications. I often use it as my first example when I'm introducing the idea of subconscious biases to people, because it's clear, surprising, and has major real-world effects. It also tends to shut up people who don't believe there are subconscious influences on decision-making, and who are always willing to find some excuse for why a supposed "bias" could actually be an example of legitimate decision-making.

And it introduces the concept of implicit egoism, the tendency to prefer something just because it's associated with you. It's one possible explanation for the endowment effect, and if it applies to my beliefs as strongly as to my personal details or my property, it's yet another mechanism by which opinions become calcified.

This is also an interesting window onto the complex and important world of self-esteem. Jones, Pelham et al suggest that the name preference effect is either involved in or a byproduct of some sort of self-esteem regulatory system. They find that name preferences are most common among high self-esteem people who have just experienced threats to their self-esteem, almost as if it is a reactive way of saying "No, you really are that great." I think an examination of how different biases interact with self-esteem would be a profitable direction for future research.