There 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:
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:
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:
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