"Long before it's in the papers"
January 28, 2015


What’s in a name? Studies link initials to success

Nov. 14, 2007
Courtesy Association for Psychological Science
and World Science staff

Do you like your name and ini­tials? Most peo­ple do. Past re­search has found that some­times we like these things enough to let them in­flu­ence ma­jor de­ci­sions. For in­stance, Jack is more likely to move to Jack­son­ville and mar­ry Jack­ie than is Philip—who is like­li­er to move to Phil­a­del­phia and mar­ry Phyl­lis. Sci­en­tists call this the “name-let­ter ef­fect.”

A monogram from an early-20th century Polish album.

But if you like your name too much, you might be in trou­ble. Leif Nel­son of the Un­ivers­ity of Cal­i­for­nia, San Die­go and col­league Jo­seph Sim­mons of Yale Un­ivers­ity found that lik­ing your own name sab­o­tages suc­cess for peo­ple whose ini­tials are re­lat­ed to neg­a­tive out­comes.

In part of their re­search, Nel­son and Sim­mons in­ves­t­i­gated the ef­fect of names in base­ball, where strike­outs, which are un­de­sir­a­ble, are recorded us­ing the let­ter K. Af­ter an­a­lyz­ing Ma­jor League records span­ning 93 years, the re­search­ers found that bat­ters whose names be­gan with K struck out slightly more of­ten than oth­ers. 

“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,” wrote the au­thors in a pa­per de­tail­ing the find­ings. The work is pub­lished in the De­cem­ber is­sue of the re­search jour­nal Psy­cho­log­i­cal Sci­ence.

Nel­son and Sim­mons al­so stud­ied the phe­nom­e­non in ac­a­dem­ia. Let­ter grades are com­monly used to meas­ure stu­dent per­for­mance, with the let­ters A through D de­not­ing pro­gres­sively worse re­sults. 

Nel­son and Sim­mons re­viewed 15 years of grade point av­er­ages for MBA stu­dents at a large pri­vate U.S. un­ivers­ity. Stu­dents whose names be­gan with C or D earned low­er av­er­ages than those whose names be­gan with A or B, they found. The lat­ter group, though, did­n’t do bet­ter than stu­dents whose ini­tials were ir­rel­e­vant to any grade. There­fore, hav­ing ini­tials that match hard-to-achieve pos­i­tive out­comes, like ac­ing a test, may not nec­es­sarily cause an in­crease in per­for­mance, the re­search­ers sug­gested. But af­ter an­a­lyz­ing law schools, they found that as the qual­ity of schools de­clined, so did the pro­por­tion of lawyers with name ini­tials A and B. 

The re­sults over­all of­fer “strik­ing ev­i­dence that un­con­scious wants can in­sid­i­ously un­der­mine con­scious pur­suits,” the re­search­ers said in an­nounc­ing their re­sults.

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Do you like your name and initials? Most people do. Past research has found that sometimes we like these things enough to let them influence major decisions. For instance, Jack is more likely to move to Jacksonville and marry Jackie than is Philip—who is likelier to move to Philadelphia and marry Phyllis. Scientists call this the “name-letter effect.” But 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 are related to negative outcomes. In part of their research, Nelson and Simmons investigated the effect of names in baseball, where strikeouts, which are undesirable, are recorded using the letter K. After analyzing Major League records spanning 93 years, the researchers found that batters whose names began with ‘K’ struck out slightly more often 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,” wrote the authors in a paper detailing the findings, published in the December issue of Psychological Science. Nelson and Simmons also studied the phenomenon in academia. Letter grades are commonly used to measure student performance, with the letters A through D denoting progressively worse results. Nelson and Simmons reviewed 15 years of grade point averages for MBA students at a large private American university. Students whose names began with C or D earned lower averages than those whose names began with A or B, they found. The latter group, though, wasn’t found to perform better than students whose initials were irrelevant to any grade. Therefore, having initials that match hard-to-achieve positive outcomes, like acing a test, may not necessarily cause an increase in performance, the researchers suggested. But after analyzing law schools, they found that as the quality of schools declined, so did the proportion of lawyers with name initials A and B. The results overall offer “striking evidence that unconscious wants can insidiously undermine conscious pursuits,” the researchers said in announcing their results.