You may like to imagine that your major life choices—where you live, who you marry, what you do for a living—are based on rational weighing of options. In your relationships, for example, you might seek someone that jives with your personality and shares your life interests, beliefs, and Netflix preferences. So the fact that you have a similar sounding name as your significant other, or share a birthday number (the number of the day you were born), shouldn’t factor in your decision at all—right?
Well, maybe not. The idea that you unconsciously prefer things that are connected to, or represent, yourself has been long debated. That you might unconsciously be drawn to Georgia if your name is George, or choose a career in baking if your last name is Baker, or be more likely to get worse grades if your name begins with the letters C or D, goes against the belief that you’re responsible for—or are the authors of—your choices. But are they real?
Implicit egotism, as this phenomenon is called, was popularized in 2002, largely by Brett Pelham, Matthew Mirenberg, and John Jones, psychologists at the State University of New York at Buffalo. Their exploration of the name-letter effect—the unconscious preference for the letters in one’s own name—and its impact on major life decisions was stunning. In a paper called “Why Susie Sells Seashells by the Seashore,” they argued that individuals were drawn to careers and cities that sounded similar to their names. For example, people named Louis are disproportionately likely to live in St. Louis, and people named Dennis are disproportionately likely to become dentists.
Since then, researchers have continued to find the effects of implicit egotism to be widespread. A 2003 study showed that people with the surname “Lane” tend to live on lanes (for example, John Lane lives on Montgomery Lane) and that people whose surname is “Street” tend to live on streets. A 2004 study found that people are disproportionately likely to marry individuals whose names resemble their own. A 2007 study revealed that baseball players whose names begin with K strike out more often (in baseball stats, K means strikeout). And a 2013 study shows that consumers’ birthday number affects their purchase intentions—if your birthday is the 24th, prices that end in .24 are more attractive.
All these results, Pelham and his colleagues argue, show that we have a tendency to be implicitly egocentric. We’re unconsciously drawn to things that resemble aspects of ourselves, perhaps as a way to boost self-esteem.
If you find yourself reflexively skeptical of these findings, you’re not alone; other researchers1 are, too.2 Uri Simonsohn, a University of Pennsylvania researcher, is one of them. In 2011, he reevaluated 16 studies Pelham and his colleagues conducted over the years. He found that “all existing evidence appears to be spurious.”
Simonsohn corrected for data-skewing factors related to ethnicity, socioeconomic status, geography, reverse causality, and sampling errors—what he saw as the main problems in each of the 16 studies’ original findings. He didn’t falsify implicit egotism; he just invalidated, he said, “the existing evidence of it in marriage, job, and location decisions.”
For example, the original study didn’t properly account for the fact that the popularity of similar sounding boy and girl names change over time, wrote Simonsohn. During years when Erica was a popular baby name for girls, more baby boys were being named Eric. When these babies grow up and start getting married, it is natural that the proportion of Erics marrying Ericas would increase—there are more of both of them! This made people with similar first names seem disproportionately likely to marry each other. The original study also found that Georges and Geoffreys are more likely to be geoscientists; in his study, Simonsohn found that geoscientists were disproportionately named George or Geoffrey, but also that scientists from other fields were as well.
Last year, though, Pelham and another researcher, Mauricio Carvallo of University of Oklahoma, shot back. In their paper, published in Self and Identity, they claimed their work provides “unprecedented evidence” for implicit egotism that “passes the most rigorous standards endorsed by the most creative and insightful critics of implicit egotism.” Using recently released U.S. Census data, statewide marriage records, and the Social Security Death Index, they were able to control for gender, ethnicity, and education level—“important controls,” they write, “that have simply never before been available in previous studies.” In their first study, Pelham and Carvallo found that men whose surnames matched traditional male occupations appeared to be working in the occupation of their surname (Joe Baker is a baker, Joe Farmer is a farmer) at a higher frequency than would be expected by chance. In their second study, they presented evidence suggesting that birthday number matching influences individuals’ choice of spouse.
I asked Simonsohn if he had updated his opinion after reading it. He has—he is more pessimistic now about implicit egotism than he was in 2011. In the study he wrote then, he thought it could possibly influence on-the-fence decisions. But based on job interview data he later analyzed (and didn’t publish), he said, “I don’t think things in science, especially social science, are ever ‘settled’, but this is as reasonably close to settled as one may expect.” He looked through the interview data—14,000 or so sessions—to see if interviewers rate interviewees more positively if they share an initial or two, or a full name, with the interviewer. According to Simonsohn, he found no effects. “Interviews are ambiguous evaluations,” he said. “If I did not see it there, I cannot imagine it mattering for more substantial decisions where differences between options—for example, what career to pursue, where to live, whom to marry—are abysmally larger than whether to rate Ashley as a 3 or a 4.”
Despite his increased opposition, Simonsohn is wry about his own egocentrism. “My kids love their initials,” he told me, “and I find the number 27 spectacular—it is also my birthday.”
1. Gallucci, M. I sell seashells by the seashore and my name is Jack: comment on Pelham, Mirenberg, and Jones (2002). Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 85(5), 789-799 (2003).
2. McCullough, B.D., McWilliams, T.P. Students with the initial ‘‘A’’ don’t get better grades. Journal of Research in Personality 45, 340-343 (2011).