Most of us have done it: dropped a name in a conversation and then waited for people to form the appropriate conclusions. "Wow, if Christian is friends with that guy, well then he must be really important/intelligent/popular". Unfortunately, it's a fairly transparent strategy. Indeed, according to Carmen Lebherz and colleagues, name-dropping will probably make you appear less likeable and less competent - unless, that is, you make your association with the famous name sound suitably distant and casual. Even then, it's only likely to do you any good as a kind of sympathy vote, after your audience have witnessed you fail.
Lebherz and her co-workers tricked dozens of undergrad students into thinking they'd been sent an introductory email from another student who they were going to be paired with later. In fact, the email was composed by the researchers and alongside information about age, where the student lived, the casual job they had, the email also included one of three degrees of name-dropping in relation to the star tennis player Roger Federer (particularly popular in his home country of Switzerland where this research was conducted). A control condition email made no mention of Federer.
After reading this introductory email, the participants rated their future research partners. Those participants who read an email from a student claiming to be friends with Federer, or both friends and an exercise partner of his, subsequently rated their future research partner as less likeable and less competent than participants who read an email from a student who simply said they were a Federer fan, or who didn't mention him at all.
The participants also rated how manipulative they thought their future research partner was and it was clear from these scores that claiming to be friends with Federer backfired because it led the name-dropping students to appear manipulative.
Students who mentioned they were merely a fan of Federer's were not judged so harshly, but neither did they benefit from the name-drop. However, previous research suggests that this kind of more distant association with an influential person can be beneficial if people have just seen us fail, and especially if we are prompted to reveal this association. Seth Carter and Lawrence Sanna, for example, found that people who'd just failed were rated more favourably after they were prompted to reveal that they were fans of a successful American football team.
"[N]ame-dropping as a self-presentational tactic has not been investigated so far, despite the fact that the term name-dropping is widely used in popular language," the researchers said. "We showed that name-dropping as a self-presentational tactic can backfire on the self-presenter."
Carmen Lebherz, Klaus Jonas, Barbara Tomljenovic (2009). Are we known by the company we keep? Effects of name-dropping on first impressions. Social Influence, 4 (1), 62-79 DOI: 10.1080/15534510802343997
Image credit: James Marvin Phelps via Flickr (usage information here).