Wednesday, 16 January 2008

Affection for our own names and initials can lead us to failure

Our tendency to like our own names and initials - sometimes referred to as a form of implicit egotism - can have relatively trivial consequences, such that Britney will be more likely to move to Brighton than Sheffield, and Jack more likely to buy a Jaguar than a Ferrari. But now, in a series of intriguing studies (pdf), Leif Nelson and Joseph Simmons have shown how, from baseball performance to Law School, our affection for our own names can have bizarrely detrimental consequences.

First off, an analysis of strike outs (failing to hit the ball three times in a row) in American baseball from 1913 to 2006 showed that players whose first or last names began with K suffered significantly more strikeouts than other players. Why? Because in baseball scoring, K is used to denote a strikeout - "For players with this initial, the explicitly negative performance outcome may feel implicitly less aversive," the researchers said.

Next, an analysis of 15 years of MBA students' grades at a large American University showed that students with the initials C or D achieved significantly lower grades than students whose initials were unrelated to grade scores, and students with the initials A or B.

Was this due to the students' self-preference for their initials or was it the examiners showing the bias? To test this, Nelson and Simmons, asked hundreds of other undergrads to report their liking for the different letters of the alphabet. A subsequent analysis of their exam scores again showed that students with the initials C or D performed less well, but only if they had previously shown a preference for these letters. This shows that affection for one's own initials really is playing a role in the patterns being observed here.

Another study showed how far-reaching these effects can be. An analysis of 392,458 lawyers who studied at 170 law schools showed that as the quality of law schools declined, so too did the proportion of lawyers with the initials A or B who had attended.

So far all the evidence has been based on archival research. A final experimental study asked 284 students to perform an anagram test online. At the bottom of the screen were two buttons, each marked with a letter - one was to be pressed if the participant felt they had failed to solve all the puzzles; the other was to be pressed if they felt they'd solved all the puzzles.

The results were clear: students whose first initial matched the button associated with poorer performance, were more likely to press this button, giving the impression they had performed less well, and leading them to receive a lesser prize.

"When people's initials match negative performance outcomes," the researchers concluded, "performance suffers."

Nelson, L.D. & Simmons, J.P. (2007). Moniker maladies. When names sabotage success. Psychological Science, 18, 1106-1111.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.


Faustus said...

Strikes are baseball, not basketball. BASEBALL. Otherwise, interesting article.

Unknown said...

Thanks faustus, I've corrected that now. I knew it was baseball (hence the picture of a baseball) but for some reason I wrote basketball all the way through - strange.

Anonymous said...

Years ago there was a study that shows that people whose names were earlier in the alphabet were more likely to get tenure in schools.

What they attributed this to, though, was that their names were often listed first in studies published in academic journals so it looked like the first or second authored more articles than the people whose names are later in the alphabet.

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