Cognitive Daily

More on whether a name is destiny

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchThere was a lot of buzz online a couple months back when an article entitled “Moniker Maladies” made what seemed to many to be a startling claim: Baseball players strike out more often when their names start with “K”; Students with the initials “C” and “D” get worse grades than others.

Actually, this effect, known as the “name-letter effect,” has been known for several years. If your name — even your last name — starts with T, you’re more likely to live in Tacoma or Tulsa than San Francisco or Springfield. Chris at Mixing Memory wrote an excellent summary of the research, so I won’t repeat it here.

So if the effect has been around for a while, why publish yet another study rehashing an old concept? Actually the researchers have done more than that. Leif Nelson and Joseph Simmons did pore over baseball record books since 1913 to find their headline-grabbing result (since K is the symbol for a strikeout, players with that initial strike out more often), but one thing they didn’t report on is pitchers. Strikeouts are good for pitchers, so shouldn’t Sandy Koufax have more than Nolan Ryan? My guess is that they didn’t report on this because the results weren’t significant. Why weren’t they?


In their second study on grades, the results make this more clear: while people with initials C and D received slightly lower grades (averaging a 3.34 GPA), people with A and B initials didn’t get any better grades than anyone else (averaging a 3.37 GPA). (In case you’re wondering, I managed to overcome my “D” initial and matched Greta’s undergraduate GPA exactly. Though perhaps her middle name, Diana, was holding her back too).

The remainder of Nelson and Simmons’ report has received a lot less press, but it’s where they discuss their truly novel findings, which investigate the question of how exactly the name-letter effect works. Their third study asked undergraduates with initials A, B, C, or D to fill out an online survey where they rated how much they like each letter of the alphabet. In addition, they reported their own GPAs. Here are the results:

i-25f0d1a7799cc75e7492138fd215ab51-Nelson1.gif

Students with initials A or B performed better than those with initials of C or D, but only when they liked their initials better than other letters. People who disliked their A and B initials got worse grades than people who disliked their C and D initials. So the effect on grades appears to depend on a positive association with initials. The researchers argue that the overall grade effect is due to the fact that most people like their initials.

Nelson and Simmons argue that since people with C and D initials tend to like those letters, they unconsciously are less averse than others to getting C and D grades. This would also explain why K pitchers don’t get more strikeouts, while K batters do — the name-letter effect can’t improve performance, only diminish it.

Still, none of these studies demonstrate conclusively that the initial preference *causes* differences in performances. Maybe professors unconsciously assign lower grades to people with C and D names. Maybe pitchers are more aggressive when they see a batter with a K in his name.

The final study in the report addressed that concern with a true experimental design. Participants took part in an on-line study where they were asked to solve a set of 10 difficult anagrams. In fact only 8 anagrams had solutions. As they worked to solve the anagrams, two messages like this were displayed on-screen:

i-a72d7281e09b1c92b4ae9c20a9218cfd-nelson2.gif

The key to the study was the two prize labels. For some participants, the prize associated with NOT completing the anagrams was labeled with their own initial. For others, the prize associated with completing them (and the larger prize) was labeled with their initial. Finally, for a third, group, NEITHER prize was labeled with their initial. Here are the results:

i-57b1056d9dcfc725d9430aaac752c7b6-nelson3.gif

So when their own initial was associated with the smaller consolation prize, respondents solved fewer anagrams compared to both those whose initial was not present at all, and those whose initial was associated with the winning prize. So Nelson and Simmons have shown experimentally what they and others have observed empirically: that a person’s name really can affect their performance in a wide variety of tasks. However, the association seems to work primarily in the negative direction: If you’re motivated to get As, having an A initial isn’t going to help so much as having a D initial will hurt.

Nelson, L.D., Simmons, J.P. (2007). Moniker Maladies: When Names Sabotage Success. Psychological Science, 18(12), 1106-1112. DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2007.02032.x

Comments

  1. #1 libbyblue
    January 10, 2008

    D initial.

    GPA 3.99

    Yay.

  2. #2 Andy Davidson
    January 11, 2008

    It is hard to believe that serious scientists are actually doing this kind of research, much less getting funding for it.

    What is actually learned from it?

  3. #3 Dave Munger
    January 11, 2008

    Based on what I can tell, the work was not supported by a grant. Is it worthless? I imagine a lot of businesses would be very interested to know about the subtle impact a person’s initials can have.

    In any case, it’s an inexpensive line of research. No one spent half a gajillion on a supercollidor to do this work.

    (also, I may have been unclear in the original post: it was a $100 prize *drawing* — participants did not get $100 just for completing a few anagrams)

  4. #4 PBV
    January 11, 2008

    Too bad that this only applies in countries where the grading method is based on letters (USA…). Meanwhile, the rest of the world will only observ this fantastic and pointless results whee they begin naming their child with numbers.

    In the topic of the initial correlated to grades, maybe the answer is more related to the likelihood of the parents to name with that initial (I love names with C and M) and the educational background of them, wich they can deliver to their sons.

    From my point of view, this “study” is a waste of time, considering that the constant part of the statistical data is too much. Maybe they are disregarding issues that are important and much more correlated.

  5. #5 lanoxa
    January 11, 2008

    Their baseball result seems untrustworthy. Yes, “K” players strike out slightly more often than average, and this is statistically significant – but for “J” players the effect is almost twice as big. In all, 20/26 letters have significant effects!

    So, although their theory seems to imply that “K” names are special, this doesn’t seem to be true.

    As pointed out by David Gassko at:
    http://www.hardballtimes.com/main/blog_article/ridiculous-science/

    (although he uses a slightly different analysis than in the paper)

  6. #6 Dave Munger
    January 11, 2008

    Well, Gassko doesn’t reveal his methodology, but the authors of this report say that when they controlled for the year in which each player played (since strikeout rates have varied throughout history), and when they removed players with uncommon initials from the list (only 5 players have the initial U), players with the initial K struck out more than players with any other initial.

    Also, Nelson and Simmons eliminated players with fewer than 100 plate appearances from their analysis.

    I suspect Gassko’s problem replicating the result stems from the lack of controlling for year of play.

  7. #7 Dave Munger
    January 11, 2008

    One more thing:

    It’s pretty clear looking at his numbers that Gassko has absolutely no understanding of the concept of standard deviation.

  8. #8 lanoxa
    January 11, 2008

    Hmm, I missed the year-of-play control when reading the paper. Also, I was thinking that since Gassko computed the results per-PA, not per-player, his results will overweight players who play for many years. This would distort the results for rare letters like “U”, but it shouldn’t have much effect on a common letter like “J”.

    However, could you explain your complaint about standard deviations? I don’t see the problem. For example, take the case of “K”. The null hypothesis is that the strikeout rate is .150, i.e. the outcome of each plate appearance is drawn from a Bernoulli(.150) distribution, which has a standard deviation of about .3571. So the sampling distribution of a single observation has an SD of .3571, but since we have observed N=464664 plate appearances, the sampling distribution of the mean should have an SD of about .3571/sqrt(464664) = .00052382. He reports that the observed strikeout rate is 8.47 SDs higher than expected under the null hypothesis, which corresponds to an observed strikeout rate of .150 + 8.47*(.00052382) = 0.1544, which is close to the .155 that he reports.

  9. #9 Dave Munger
    January 11, 2008

    Comment deleted. I think I get it now. Thanks for the explanation.

  10. #10 braingirl
    January 11, 2008

    Liking or not liking your name can have a great impact on your overall image of yourself and abilities. I can vouch from personal experience that not liking my first name growing up made me feel like an incompetent phony in many areas of life, although that certainly wasn’t the only contributing factor. It was only when I walked into the court house and changed my name to something that I felt really suited me, represented my ‘true self’, was I able to succeed more in life. This study touches on students doing worse when they don’t like their initials, but a more in-depth look at that might be interesting. I wonder how many of those students feel like they’re stuck with their names forever? How would the results change if they were given the freedom to rename themselves, even if just for the experiement, to something they did like.

  11. #11 skibby honcho
    January 11, 2008

    What about a person’s name that does not correspond to a measure of success (i.e. a student who’s name is Jan Jones, no letter grades associated there)? What is the correlation to success in that situation?

  12. #12 Dave Munger
    January 11, 2008

    Skibby:

    In that case, they do just as well as people with the A/B initials. It seems that C/D brings you down, but A/B doesn’t bring you up.

  13. #13 Andrew
    January 11, 2008

    There’s an implicit name bias in more areas of life than grades and batting average. They found that people named George are more likely to move to the state of Georgia. People named Dennis are more likely to become dentists, as are women named Laurie more likely to become lawyers (than stastically expected). Also, married couples tend to share similar names more frequently than expected.
    It seems that the three most important decisions one can make: where to live, what to do, and whom to marry, are all at least somewhat affected by name bias.
    The idea is that since the sound of one’s own name tends to be pleasing (at least to most of us) the profession, location, or person whose name resembles our own will sound pleasing, as well.

    This is all in a paper titled, “Why Susie Sells Sea Shells by the Sea Shore,” but I can’t remember who did the research.

  14. #14 Dave Munger
    January 11, 2008

    Andrew,

    You can find the reference in the Mixing Memory post I link above.

  15. #15 Brian
    January 11, 2008

    One has to consider practical significance as well as statistical significance. The effects may be genuine (rather than arising from chance) but do they make much of a practical difference? If the detrimental effect on GPA of having a C or D initial is really an average drop of 0.03 then I would have to say not really. (What about F initials?)

    Since subjects reported their own GPAs it’s also possible the effect arises from distortions in the report rather than difference in actual GPA. Maybe C/D intialed students remember themselves as having received poorer grades than they really did, for instance.

  16. #16 ensest hikayeler
    January 18, 2008

    Also, Nelson and Simmons eliminated players with fewer than 100 plate appearances from their analysis. question?

  17. #17 Christian
    January 20, 2008

    @Andy Davidson:
    Researching whether the system that you use to grade people discriminates against certain people is important.
    If this is a big effect a grading system based on numbers is more fair than one based on letters.
    In some parts of the would people actually believe in equal chances.

  18. #18 Ed
    November 4, 2009

    I’m surprised as to how many people think this sort of research is pointless… While this study is not strictly the greatest example there are plenty of areas in this that should be explored.

    Are certain names or initials more prone to cause depression?
    Are certain names or initials likely to effect the type of person you are?
    Are people with certain names more prone to criminal activity?
    Is a persons name alone a strong enough thing to effect a persons view of themselves?

    Just my thoughts on the issue…

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