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What’s in a name? More than you think

by Brad A. Greenberg

November 14, 2007 | 12:52 pm

This one is from the Freakonomics School of Unconventional Studies:

The title of the paper, to appear in next month’s edition of the journal Psychological Science, is entitled “Moniker maladies, when names sabotage success.” Here’s the abstract:

In five studies, we found that people like their names enough to unconsciously pursue consciously avoided outcomes that resemble their names. Baseball players avoid strikeouts, but players whose names begin with the strikeout-signifying letter K strike out more than others (Study 1). All students want As, but students whose names begin with letters associated with poorer performance (C and D) achieve lower grade point averages (GPAs) than do students whose names begin with A and B (Study 2), especially if they like their initials (Study 3). Because lower GPAs lead to lesser graduate schools, students whose names begin with the letters C and D attend lower-ranked law schools than students whose names begin with A and B (Study 4). Finally, in an experimental study, we manipulated congruence between participants’ initials and the labels of prizes and found that participants solve fewer anagrams when a consolation prize shares their first initial than when it does not (Study 5). These findings provide striking evidence that unconsciously desiring negative name-resembling performance outcomes can insidiously undermine the more conscious pursuit of positive outcomes.

The last chapter of Freakonomics argued that people given “super-black” names, like the father who called his two sons Winner and Loser, or the girl named Shithead (pronounced “Shah-teed”), don’t do worse because of their names but often because of life circumstances. But this study looks at a much odder phenomenon of name association.

So what does this imply for people named Moses or Jesus?

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Since launching the blog in 2007, I’ve referred to myself as “a God-fearing Christian with devilishly good Jewish looks.” The description, I’d say, is an accurate one,...

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