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What's in a Name? Everything.

May 15, 2013, 10:23 AM

Very often the first piece of information we have about a person is their name. It’s often the first thing you learn about someone and we form judgments about people very rapidly.  And those judgments accumulate, so the first piece of information is especially important.  It can lean you in a positive direction or a negative direction.  And those first impressions can set the stage for future interactions.  

Imagine that two people are starting work at a law firm on the same day.  The one person has a very simple name.  The other person has a very complex name.  We’ve got pretty good evidence that over the course of their next 16 plus years of their career, the person with the simpler name will rise up the legal hierarchy more quickly.  They will attain partnership more quickly in the middle parts of their career.  And by about the eighth or ninth year after graduating from law school the people with simpler names are about seven to ten percent more likely to be partners - which is a striking effect.  

We try to eliminate all sorts of other alternative explanations.  For example, we try to show that it’s not about foreignness because foreign names tend to be harder to pronounce.  But even if you look at just white males with Anglo American names – so really the true in-group, you find that among those white males with Anglo names they are more likely to rise up if their names happen to be simpler.  So simplicity is one key feature in names that determines various outcomes.  

Another factor is that we identify very strongly with our names and they are an important part of the baggage that we associate with ourselves.  And they reflect on us. So there’s a very famous effect, an old effect in cognitive psychology known as the cocktail party effect. And this resonates for everyone.  The basic idea is if you’re at a cocktail party and there can be hundreds of people around but someone will mention your name at the other end of the room and you’ll hear that.  It’ll come up, rise up above the din and somehow you’ll still hear that name despite the fact that it’s a very noisy room.  And that’s because this name means so much to us and it rises up and it catches our attention in a way that a lot of other stimuli don’t.

Now this has some interesting implications.  One is that we tend to like the letters in our name, especially the first letters, our initials, more than we like other letters.  So, for me, as Adam Alter I really like the letter A.  And if you gave me an array of letters – of all the letters in the English alphabet and said, “Can you pick your six favorite letters.”  I would certainly circle A first.  And this is a robust effect across hundreds of countries, thousands of people – no matter what the alphabet – you find that people are 50 percent more likely to circle the letters from their own names.

Now this has some interesting implications.  One is that it’s been shown that people are more likely to give to hurricane aid causes when the hurricane happens to share their initial.  So, after hurricane Katrina, people named Kim or Ken were more likely to donate than they would have been to the same hurricane if it had been hurricane Mitch.  And after hurricane Mitch, the same is true for Michaels and Marys.  They would have been more likely to give to Mitch than to Katrina.  And it’s a pretty powerful effect.  And it has all sorts of interesting implications, I think, for the way we name hurricanes.  So since the 1950s the National Weather Service has decided that it’s better for us to have names for hurricanes rather than referring to them by longitude and latitude as they often did before.  It’s just not a very convenient way of referring to them.

I did a fairly simple calculation on the back of a napkin and what I found was that over the course of the last 12 years if you look at all the major hurricanes that have come through in the Atlantic Basin and you look at how much aid we’ve attracted – if we had named our hurricanes optimally according to the way people are named in the U.S. and according to the proportions of people with names that begin with each letter, we could have attracted almost a billion dollars extra in aid – about 700, 750 million dollars.

That’s based on an intervention that costs nothing.  All the Weather Service has to do is tweak their names.  It costs nothing and has the potential over the course of a decade, according to this research, to raise hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars in aid which I think is a striking effect and shows the power of some of these results.

In Their Own Words is recorded in Big Think's studio.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock. 


What's in a Name? Everything.

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