That Which We Call a Rose

What’s in a name? The answer is a lot, although it is mostly in the initials. Research at Yale conducted by Joseph Simmons, assistant professor of marketing, indicates that people unconsciously make decisions based on their names. In a paper titled “Moniker Maladies: When Names Sabotage Success,” he argues that a Sandy is, for instance, more likely to buy a Saturn, move to San Diego, and marry Sandler. Richard is more likely to buy a Renault, move to Richmond, and marry Ricarda.

This phenomenon is called the name letter effect (NLE), and appears to be an unconscious effect. NLE also entails implicit egotism (name-liking from self-liking) and seems to affect our choices even if the result is undesirable.

Simmons observed this trend in both sports and academics. Baseball strikeouts are represented by a K, and batters with K initials struck out more often than others. Similarly, C- or D-initialed students tended to have lower GPAs than A- or B-initialed students. Although both parties want to succeed, those with initials that represent poor performances may not feel as motivated to avoid failure because of implicit egotism.

Since grades affect graduate school admissions, Simmons also studied correlations between law school admissions and student initials. The same pattern emerged: A- and B-initialed students often went to better law schools (as ranked by the US News and World Report) than C- and D-initialed students.

A difficult part in this research was controlling for external factors. Much of the data was “archival,” meaning that existing records were used as data. Although archival data shows how names impact outcomes in reality, it can mislead researchers.

In an email interview, Simmons noted that “in archival research it is almost always possible that a relationship exists not because one variable (names) causes another (grades), but because some other variable (say, gender) influences both at the same time.” However, such external variables were statistically minimized with an experiment that randomized subjects in a controlled environment.

For future parents, Simmons offers this piece of wisdom: “I will be the first to admit that the effects that we have observed are quite small, and so there’s no need to panic if you recently named your child Christine or Dena. Still, the effect of names on grades does exist, and so if there is a prescription, it is to avoid naming your children in a way that induces a slight preference for negative life outcomes – that is, to avoid giving them names that resemble such outcomes.”