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Are Your Initials Holding You Back?


“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.”
~Romeo and Juliet

In these lines from Shakespeare’s famous play, Juliet is trying to persuade Romeo that the bitter feud between their respective families doesn’t matter, that he and his surname are easily divisible, and so they can be together.

While she speaks truthfully of her own love, in questioning the power of names she is intentionally dissembling. Clearly they do matter, a very great deal, as the tragic ending of Romeo and Juliet bears out.

In fact we are so sensitive to what things are called and the unconscious associations these generate, that our performance in a variety of arenas may be marred by something as seemingly insignificant as our own initials.

Initial problems

To test whether initials can really scupper our best intentions, psychologists Leif Nelson and Joseph Simmons went on a hunt through baseball records, grade point averages and law school admissions—even carrying out their own experiment—to search for evidence.

Publishing their results in Psychological Science, Nelson and Simmons (2007) unearthed some suggestive findings:

  • Baseball. Strikeouts are recorded with the letter K in baseball (for the sports impaired: a strikeout is a bad thing for a batter). Nelson and Simmons found that across 90 years of professional baseball, players whose names—whether first or last—began with a K have been slightly more likely to strikeout than anyone else.
  • Academic performance. Nelson and Simmons then looked at MBA applicants over 15 years to a large US university. They hypothesised that people whose names began with C or D would find these grades less aversive and so strive less hard to avoid them. And that’s what they found: applicants whose first or last name began with a C or D had lower GPAs. It was only a small effect, but significant across 14,000 applicants.
  • Law school. The same pattern was seen in law schools: lawyers with initials of A or B were found to have attended better law schools than those with initials of C or D.

These are all correlations, though, which might be explained in all sorts of different ways. To give us evidence that initials have a causative role in performance what we really need is an experiment.

Implicit egotism

Nelson and Simmons, therefore, gave 284 participants the chance to win a prize in an anagram competition. The way the prizes were labelled was manipulated so that sometimes they coincided with the participants’ initials, and sometimes not.

The experimenters predicted that participants would be unconsciously drawn towards the lesser, consolation prize, if one of their initials coincided with the prize’s label. Consequently they would complete fewer anagrams.

Surprisingly this is exactly what they found: people completed less anagrams (on average 1 fewer) when the consolation prize happened to be labelled with the first letter of their own name. In effect, because of a simple alphabetical association, participants tried to fail.

Theorists argue there is a kind of implicit egoism at work. We unconsciously prefer our own names because they are associated with ourselves and most people like themselves. That this effect isn’t down to a kind of novelty-seeking is borne out by the fact that people are choosing worse outcomes. The vast majority of people wouldn’t consciously choose to get a ‘D’, go to a poor law school, or only win the consolation prize.

This effect may well have a small but measurable influence in all sorts of situations. One that has been investigated recently is the association between people’s initials and their tendency to work for companies that start with the same letter.

Anseel and Duyck (2008) obtained a database containing one-third of all private sector employees in Belgium, over half a million names, then they looked at their employers’ names. They found as predicted that people were more likely to work for companies with initials matching their own, especially if their initials and the company’s were unusual such as Q or Y.

Implicit egotism could well be working both ways here: not only are employees more likely to apply for jobs with companies with the same initial but employers prefer applicants that share their organisation’s initial letter.

What’s in an initial?


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So the answer to Juliet’s question, “What’s in a name?” is: quite a lot. This research suggests there’s more than we might imagine in only an initial. Perhaps Juliet, if she’d lived longer than her 13 years, would have been well advised to change her family name of ‘Capulet’ to something more aspirational to help her application for that MBA or to get her into a decent Italian law school.