Why Your Name May Be Ruining Your Life
Once upon a time, when you desperately needed a locksmith or a tow truck, or maybe even to get out of jail, you turned to a thick book filled with hundreds of exceedingly thin yellow pages. The categories tended to start with a plethora of “A” names, from Aaron’s Locksmith to Aardvark Towing to AAA Bail Bonds.
There’s obviously an economic value to being listed first, even if it meant your business was almost unpronounceable.
Names can decide our fates in all sorts of ways. In the U.S., for example, studies show applicants with names stereotypically considered common among blacks can dampen prospects for jobs and housing. Academic papers reveal similar discrimination by Americans as well as Europeans against people with Arabic, Turkish, and other Middle Eastern names.
What about the first letter of your name? Does a name’s position in the alphabet affect anything outside the Yellow Pages? The idea, though not as purposely harmful as the above, isn’t so far-fetched. People and businesses are listed alphabetically all the time—and not just in the phone book. Their rank can subtly affect the choices people make, with far-reaching consequences.
Investors are a good example. Two studies published last year in the Review of Finance found stocks with names closer to the front of the alphabet are traded more often than those near the end. These front-of-the-alphabet stocks also have higher valuations, one set of researchers found. Authors divined the same effect in mutual funds: Funds with names at the beginning of the alphabet attracted more money than those with names further along.
It may seem illogical to choose an investment based on its name. But that’s not quite what’s happening. Many investors don’t have time to check out every stock, so they take a shortcut. “When confronted with a large number of options, individuals often choose the first acceptable option, rather than the best possible option,” researchers 1 concluded in one study.
OK, but what about human beings? Are people’s lives and fortunes really affected by whether their last name begins with a “W” rather than a “C”?
Getting a leg up
Two University of Colorado economists found compelling evidence that the first letter of your last name does matter quite a bit—especially when you’re young.
Professor Jeffrey Zax and graduate student Alexander Cauley analyzed data on the lives of more than 3,000 men who graduated from Wisconsin high schools 2 in 1957. They found that those with surnames further back in the alphabet did worse in high school, in college, and in the job market early in their careers. “The effect [of the alphabetical rank] is significant, negative, and substantively large,” Cauley and Zax wrote. While correlation isn’t necessarily causation, the researchers firmly believe there’s a connection.
The findings suggest that teachers pay less attention to students further down their class rolls. On average, high school students in the data set had an 11.3 percent chance of being designated an “outstanding” student in their graduating class. If a student’s name was 10 letters further back in the alphabet, however—say, “K” vs. “A,” or “R” rather than “H”—their likelihood of being “outstanding” fell 1.28 percentage points, a more than 10 percent drop on average.
A student 10 letters back in the alphabet was also 2.2 points less likely to express a favorable opinion of their high school courses, 2.9 points less likely to apply for college, 5.6 points more likely to quit once they get there, and 2.7 points less likely to graduate. Their first jobs also ranked as less prestigious, and they were more likely to join the military.
People with late-in-the-alphabet names “are presumably offered fewer opportunities,” the authors write. “They are consequently less prepared to take advantage of those opportunities that are offered.”
Find a way to stand out
A version of the study was Cauley’s undergraduate senior thesis, an idea suggested by Zax, who was his adviser at the time. Cauley stayed on at the University of Colorado as a graduate student, and he and Zax expanded the analysis. Now being prepared for publication, the findings have surprised other economists at academic conferences, said Cauley, now 29. “Most people don’t go around thinking the alphabet will have any impact on their life,” he explained.
Ironically, Zax, 62, doesn’t think his own spot at the end of the alphabet has been a disadvantage at all. “I don’t necessarily feel like I’ve been neglected over a lifetime,” he said. “When I was in school, I thought of it as being kind of cool.”
But he was also a good student—one his teachers were unlikely to ignore, he said. That’s a key factor, the research suggests. When Cauley and Zax dug deeper, and included the effects of IQ and perceived attractiveness, they found something striking. The men at the top and bottom of the rankings—those with the highest and lowest IQs, and the most and least attractive—generally didn’t suffer from having late-in-the-alphabet names. Meanwhile, those in the middle with average looks and average intelligence were at the mercy of “alphabetism.”
The lesson is, if you have a last name that’s at the back of the line, find another way to stand out.
“Being in the end itself is not the problem. The problem is being at the end and not being noteworthy in any other way,” Zax said. “This effect is really most powerful for people who aren’t distinguished in any other way. They’re being disregarded and ignored.”
Luckily, the cure for alphabetism is a lot easier than for other forms of discrimination: Hiring managers might consider job applicants randomly, rather than stacking up résumés in alphabetical order. Teachers might ignore the alphabet when seating students, or call attendance in reverse order, as Zax said he often does. Or perhaps just simple awareness that this could be a problem will do the trick.
If your name always put you at the back of the class and the end of the attendance roll, take heart. While alphabetism hurt early career prospects in the study, the effects seem to disappear by the time you reach your mid-30s. The longer you work and build a reputation, the less your name seems to matter. “People do find a way to overcome these disadvantages,” Zax said. “Over time, the effect of your last name erodes, and it’s replaced by your actual record of accomplishment.”
Jennifer Itzkowitz of Seton Hall University, Jesse Itzkowitz of Yeshiva University, and Scott Rothbort of Seton Hall University
Wisconsin was chosen for no reason other than the quality and depth of the data in the Wisconsin Longitudinal Study, which has tracked educational and career trajectories over decades. The researchers looked only at men because of the very different “social processes affecting women, particularly at the time the data were collected,” Zax said. For one thing, of course, many women changed their last names when they got married.