Do People Really Make Life Decisions Based On Their Names?

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What’s in a name? Letters that offer clues to one’s future decisions, apparently.

Previous studies have suggested that a person’s monogram may influence his life choices — where he works, whom he marries or where he lives — because of “implicit egotism,” or the allure of positive self-associations. For instance, a person named Fred might be attracted to the notion of living in Fresno, working for Forever 21 or driving a Ford F-150. (More on Young Adults Choose Self-Esteem Boost Over Sex and Money)

Now a new study by Wharton professor Uri Simonsohn takes another look at the so-called name-letter effect and offers other explanations for the phenomenon. Simonsohn analyzed records of political donations in the U.S. during the 2004 campaign — which included donors’ names and employers — and found that the name of a person’s workplace more closely correlated with the first three letters of a person’s name than with just the first letter. But Simonsohn suggests that the reason for the association isn’t implicit egotism [PDF], but perhaps something exactly the opposite:

One alternative explanation [to implicit egotism] for these findings is reverse causality: Rather than employees seeking out companies with similar names, people starting new companies may name them after themselves. Walt Disney worked for a company starting with D not because of an unconscious attraction to that letter, but because he so christened it.

A second alternative explanation is an ethnic/language confound: VanBoven works for VanDyke Associates while LeBoeuf for LeBlanc Associates because the former lives in Dutch speaking Flanders and the latter in French speaking Wallonia; Van is a common Dutch prefix, Le a French one.

Wouter Duyck, one of the researchers whose previous work uncovered the name-letter effect, isn’t so quick to abandon the implicit egotism theory. In an email to Healthland, he pointed out that the sample group Simonsohn studied may have biased the results:

[Simonsohn] analyzed the name-letter effect in a sample of people who donated money to political campaigns. This is, of course, a very specific subset of people [that] is very likely to contain an overrepresentation of high achievers, richer people (lawyers, rich business owners, [etc.]) that are more likely to indeed have a company named after their own [names]. This explains why he sees a 160 percent name-letter effect in his sample [while] we only got an overrepresentation of 13 percent. This shows that he is just measuring something else.

Still, Duyck notes that Simonsohn’s theories are plausible, and that even while some people may found eponymous companies, employees may be gravitating toward those companies because they start with the same letter as their names. (More on Mad Mad Men Men: Why People Love Repetitive Brand Names)

In the end, whatever the explanation for the name-letter effect, no one really disputes that egotism is involved on some level. But the true importance of the effect is up for debate. “I can’t imagine people don’t like their own letter more than other letters,” says Simonsohn, “[but] the differences it makes in really big decisions are probably slim.” (More on How Retail Therapy Works: Spending Money for Social Acceptance)