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6 Ways That Your Name Influences Your Decisions

From dating to shopping to voting, research identifies trends.

g-stockstudio/Shutterstock
Source: g-stockstudio/Shutterstock

Most people don’t choose their names, and many don’t even particularly like their names. Yet names are a central part of who we are. Like it or not, they follow us wherever we go. And remarkably, research suggests that our names might not just follow us but also lead us, biasing our choices in favor of name-resembling people, places, and things.

In a series of studies using census data and other public records, researchers found that people were disproportionately likely to move to states and choose careers resembling their own names. For example, Dennises were more likely to become dentists than Walters or Jerrys were, and Georgias were more likely to move to the state of Georgia than would be expected based on chance. These patterns are thought to reflect a phenomenon called implicit egotism, which refers to our tendency to form positive associations with anything that reminds us of ourselves.

In the years since the release of these studies, researchers have identified a number of other surprising ways that names influence decisions. Here are six:

1. Romantic partners

Using marriage records from several U.S. states, researchers found that people were disproportionately likely to marry someone whose last name was the same or similar to their own. They argued that this pattern was unlikely to reflect a preference for partners of the same ethnicity, who would be more likely to share a last name, since the same results emerged when conducting analyses within specific ethnic groups. In another study, men evaluated the online dating profile of a woman whose last name shared letters with their own—and rated it more positively than men who evaluated an otherwise identical profile that lacked the name resemblance.

2. Political contributions

During the 2000 presidential campaign, researchers found that people whose last names began with B were more likely to contribute to the Bush campaign, whereas those beginning with G were more likely to contribute to Gore. Things might look different this election cycle, though, since we’re more accustomed to hearing candidates' first names. For Dennis the dentist, Donald might have a slight edge over Ted.

3. Brands

There is no evidence to suggest that people prefer basic objects that resemble their names, they do seem to prefer objects associated with name-resembling brands. In one study, participants were more likely to prefer a cracker brand that contained the first three letters of their own first names (followed by the stem “oki”)—Jonathans tended to prefer “Jonoki” over “Elioki,” while Elizabeths showed the reverse pattern. (Researchers have noted that marketers could take advantage of this bias with common-name-targeted ads.)

4. Places of employment

In addition to attracting similarly-named customers, companies may also attract similarly-named (or at least similarly-initialed) employees. One study found that companies had a disproportionate number of employees whose last names started with the same first letter as the company name. This bias could operate at the hiring level as well as the candidate level. Those making hiring decisions might identify with their companies and therefore feel more positively towards people whose names resemble the company name.

5. Success and failure

Could names be so powerful that they lead people toward unwanted outcomes, merely because these outcomes resemble their names? Potentially. In one study, baseball players whose first or last names began with K (which stands for strike out) were more likely to strike out than other players. In another, students whose first or last names began with A or B earned higher GPAs than those whose names began with C or D. Participants even solved fewer anagrams when a consolation prize was labeled with their first initial (e.g., “Prize E” for Edward) than when it did not.

6. Charitable donations

Names may also impact generosity. One study found that people who shared an initial with a hurricane name (e.g., K for Katrina) were more likely than others to donate to disaster relief efforts. These findings raise the possibility that the names given to hurricanes could impact the amount of donations received: Names starting with more common letters could elicit more overall support, whereas those starting with less common letters could fall short of their fundraising potential.

It’s important to note: These patterns emerge at an aggregate level and aren't necessarily applicable when predicting a given individual’s behavior. That is, just because your name is Dennis doesn’t mean you’re destined to become a dentist or vote for Donald. Multiple factors influence our major life decisions, and the effect of your name may be negligible compared to other considerations. But if you’re facing a decision where the options are relatively equal on other levels, name-similarity just might tip the scales.

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