Monday, 19 November 2007

Good letters bring success

Most people are aware that if your surname begins with a letter in the first half of the alphabet then you have a better chance in life, simply because having your name crop up near the top of written lists, or having it called out before others, must in some circumstances confer an advantage.

I had not realised before that there is something called the Name Letter Effect (NLE) which is said to work in other, subtler, ways, and involves not merely your surname but your monogram—all your initials. Martin Gardiner in Really Magazine quotes from and gives links to several pieces of research on this phenomenon.

The most recent of them resulted in a paper published in this month’s edition of the journal Psychological Science by Leif D. Nelson of the University of California and Joseph P. Simmons of the Yale School of Management , which they childishly titled Moniker Maladies: When Names Sabotage Success. It found that “law students with initials which represented poor grades in exam results did less well than their colleagues whose initials included As and Bs” and generally “people perform worse when their initials match objectively undesirable performance outcomes”.

I was tempted to download a copy of the research but a glance at the Abstract warned me that it is unlikely be a thumping good read:
People like their names enough to unconsciously approach consciously-avoided name-resembling outcomes. Baseball players avoid strikeouts, but players with strikeout-signifying K-initials strike out more than others. All students want A's, but C- and D-initialed students find initial-resembling outcomes less aversive and achieve lower GPAs, particularly if they like their initials. Because lower GPAs lead to lesser graduate schools, C- and D-initialed students go to lower ranked law schools than their A- and B-initialed counterparts .… These findings provide striking evidence that unconscious wants can insidiously undermine conscious pursuits.

Back in 2005, the Journal of Psychosomatic Medicine had a paper entitled Monogrammic Determinism? describing research in which students had to categorise some initials according to unpleasantness. Unsurprisingly, they rated initials such as P.I.G. and Z.I.T. as severely negative. Next, the researchers correlated the unfortunate initials with death records from the California Department of Health Services mortality database stretching back to 1905.
So did having an undesirable set of initials mean that you might D.I.E. earlier? No, it didn’t, so let’s move on.

The concept goes back much further. In 1984 Joszf M Nuttin, the founder of the Laboratorium voor Experimentele Sociale Psychologie, in Belgium, reported on NLE to the General Meeting of the European Association of Experimental Social Psychology. Here again, I cannot comment, because a glance at the Abstract made me decide that Narcissism beyond Gestalt and awareness: The name letter effect was not something I wanted to spend a long weekend with:
Mere belongingness to self is tested as a sufficient condition for the enhancement of the attractiveness of visual letter stimuli….The effect is obtained in the absence of awareness of the Gestalt of any name, thus challenging current understanding of fundamental affective processes.

So there you have it, or possibly don’t. Why was I interested in these enquiries into trivial and probably rather pointless matters, you may ask? Well, because they illustrate the point that sociological research, whatever degree of correlation is found in two sets of data, is never more than generalisation, and tells you nothing about a specific case. My initials, you see, are AAB: I have yet to make my first million, my academic achievement consisted of failing the same degree twice, and my sporting career began when I was ten with the discovery that rugger is a very rough game indeed and that cricket is played with a very hard ball, and went downhill from there.

1 comment:

Grumio said...

Clearly no-one told Zsa Zsa Gabor.