The Name-Letter Effect, or, why Mildred moved to Milwaukee

People tend to like the letters in their names more than the letters that are not in their names. This tendency, called the “name-letter effect,” may even influence some of the major life decisions people make. Studies have shown that people are disproportionately likely to…

  • Live in states or cities that resemble their names (i.e. Philip living in Philadelphia)
  • Have careers that resemble their names (i.e. Laura becoming a lawyer)
  • Choose brands that resemble their names (i.e. Peggy buying Pepsi)
  • Marry people whose surnames–or, less often, first names–begin with the same letter as their own (i.e. Jack marrying Jill)

The downside to this phenomenon is that if your initials match a negative outcome, you’re less likely to see that outcome as averse. This could make it harder for you to succeed. For instance, studies have found that:

  • Students whose first or last names start with A or B tend to get better grades and go to better law schools than those whose first or last names start with C or D.
  • Baseball players whose first or last names start with K (e.g. Kevin Kouzmanoff) are more likely to strike out than other players.

None of the above correlations are extremely strong, but they’re statistically significant. So if you want your daughter to reach the Supreme Court, you might want to name her Lauren instead of Cecilia or Deirdre. If your dream is to see your son play in the majors, you might want to play it safe and give him something other than a k-name.

(The researchers who conducted the aforementioned studies include Jozef Nuttin, Brett Pelham, Mauricio Carvallo, Matthew Mirenberg, John Jones, Tom DeHart, John Hetts, C. Miguel Brendl, Amitava Chattopadhyay, Leif Nelson and Joseph Simmons.)

11 thoughts on “The Name-Letter Effect, or, why Mildred moved to Milwaukee

  1. Can it really make that big of a difference? I feel like I don’t and neither does my husband follow any of those rules…

  2. The correlations aren’t strong, so the effect shouldn’t hold true for many people — just enough to prove that there is a link, however weak.

  3. From Quirkology: How We Discover the Big Truths in Small Things by Richard Wiseman, via Barking up the wrong tree:

    Pelham and his colleagues looked at more than 15,000 marriage records between 1823 and 1965. An intriguing pattern emerged: Significantly more couples had family names with the same initial than predicted by chance. Worried that the effect might be due to ethnic matching (that is, members of certain ethnic groups being likely to marry one another and have surnames starting with certain letters), the team repeated the study, but this time focussed on the five most common American surnames: Smith, Johnson, Williams, Jones, and Brown. Once again the effect emerged; for instance, people named Smith were more likely to marry another Smith than someone called Jones or Williams, and people called Jones were more likely to say “I do” to another Jones than a Brown or even a Johnson.

  4. From Slate‘s Maurice Sendak obit:

    He adored Melville, Mozart, and Mickey Mouse (and would have noted the alliteration with pleasure—he wrote in different places about the mysterious significance he attached to the letter M, his own first initial and that of many of his characters, beginning with Max of Where the Wild Things Are).

  5. Here’s something interesting:

    Three Journal of Personality and Social Psychology papers have shown that a disproportionate share of people choose spouses, places to live, and occupations with names similar to their own. These findings are now included in most modern social psychology textbooks and many university courses. This paper shows that all of these findings are spurious.

    It’s from the abstract of Spurious? Name Similarity Effects (Implicit Egotism) in Marriage, Job and Moving Decisions (pdf), written by Uri Simonsohn in 2010.

    So, I guess not everyone agrees on this topic.

  6. Wyatt is now the #1 name in Wyoming, along with Liam. (They’re tied at 33 baby boys apiece.) Do you think Wyatt’s success in Wyoming can be attributed, at least in part, to the similarity between the words?

  7. “The correlations aren’t strong, so the effect shouldn’t hold true for many people — just enough to prove that there is a link, however weak.”

    Please do NOT use such a fictitious statement like that again. Correlation is not, and never has been, causation. A weak correlation doesn’t mean there is a strong case for causation, it means there is a WEAK case for causation and that the null hypothesis is more likely to be invalid than valid.

  8. This isn’t to say that the null hypothesis IS invalid, just that weak correlation does not favor it and even strong correlation only indicates that there may be a link; not that there is a link.

  9. @Brent – You’re right that correlation does not imply causation.

    I used the word “link,” not “causation,” but I see what you’re saying. (“Link” is still too strong; I should have stuck to “correlation.”)

    That statement isn’t worded beautifully — “prove” was also a bad choice — but if you can get past the diction (this was an offhanded comment I made 5 yrs ago, btw!) I’m just reaffirming that the correlationship does exist.

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