A, My Name is Alice: Moniker Madness

You know the old children’s game (excellent for long car trips) where you think of a name, place, and item for sale beginning with the same letter: “P my name is Paul, and I come from Poughkeepsie and I sell potatoes.” Turns out there may be more to it than we thought: People like their names so much that they unconsciously opt for things that begin with their initials. Tom is more likely to buy a Toyota, move to Totowa and marry Tessa than is Joe, who is more likely to buy a Jeep, move to Jonestown and marry Jill—and Susie sells seashells by the seashore. Even weirder, they gravitate toward things that begin with their initials even when those things are undesirable, like bad grades or a baseball strikeout.

In what they call “moniker maladies,” a pair of researchers find that although no baseball player wants to strike out, players whose names begin with K (scorecard shorthand for a strikeout) fan more often than other players. Most students want As, but those whose names begin C or D have lower grade point averages than students whose names begin with A and B—with an even greater effect if they say they like their initials. That has real-world consequences: students whose names begin with C or D and go to law school attend lower-ranked ones than students whose names begin with A or B.

Before we get to whether this is real, a little more detail on what Leif Nelson of the University of California, San Diego, and Joseph Simmons of Yale University found in a study to be published next month in the journal Psychological Science. It’s possible, they figured, that Joe is consciously so enamored of his name that, faced with the choice of living in Jonestown or Akron, he deliberately chooses Jonestown (ditto when he has to choose between Jill and Amy). Or, maybe people are driven by unconscious self-liking.

If the preference for people, places and things that share one of your initials is conscious, then it shouldn’t work if the thing you’re choosing is basically undesirable. Strikeouts are undesirable. Yet based on data from 1913 through 2006, for the 6,397 players with at least 100 plate appearances, “batters whose names began with K struck out at a higher rate (in 18.8% of their plate appearances) than the remaining batters (17.2%),” the researchers find. The reason, they suggest, is that players whose first or last name starts with K like their initial so much that “even Karl ‘Koley’ Kolseth would find a strikeout aversive, but he might find it a little less aversive than players who do not share his initials, and therefore he might avoid striking out less enthusiastically.” Granted, 18.8% vs. 17.2% is not a huge difference, but it was statistically significant—that is, not likely to be due to chance.

The pattern held for grades, too. Using 15 years (1990–2004) of grade point averages for business school grads, they found that students whose names began with C or D earned lower GPAs than those whose names began with A or B. The Carters and Dorns performed worse than average (based on students with grade-neutral initials such as M and N); the Ashes and Bakers didn't do significantly better than the norm. The former had such “an unconscious fondness for these letters, [they] were slightly less successful at achieving their conscious academic goals than were students with other initials,” write the researchers.

The eerie coincidences also held for law schools. Scrutinizing data on 170 law schools and 392,458 lawyers, the researchers found that the higher the school’s ranking (by U.S. News & World Report), the higher the proportion of lawyers with the initials A or B. Adlai and Bill are more likely to go to Stanford than Chester and Dwight. (In the study, people with conflicting initials--Douglas Avery--were eliminated from the analysis.) Liking your own name “sabotages success for people whose initials match” the names of negative things such as low grades and strikeouts.

Clearly, the effect is not all-powerful. This SB married an EG, lives in P and named her children D and S (oops). The effect was small, just a fraction of a point in GPA, for instance, but the fact that it exists at all "took us aback," Nelson told me. He's pretty sure they eliminated all other explanations for the weird link between initials and performance. While it’s also true that, as statisticians know, if you search for a correlation between some outcome (strikeouts) and enough possible explanations, you’ll find one by chance alone. But again, the scientists say this is not the case here. Other explanations, anyone?

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