The Surname Experiment

This article by Richard Wiseman was originally published in The Daily Telegraph in 2007.

Easy as a, b, c: can your name really affect your life? As contrived - or cruel - as the names Brooklyn, Romeo and Cruz might be, the happiness of the Beckham boys could be salvaged by their surname. Not, as you might think, because it's a famous name; if their father had been called David Wickham things could have been quite different. I recently invited Telegraph readers to take part in a unique experiment to explore whether your surname influences your life. There was a massive response, with 15,000 readers participating online.

The results yielded a fascinating insight into a hitherto hidden aspect of the human psyche. I wanted to know if people who had a surname that began with a letter near the start of the alphabet were more successful in life than those with names towards the end. In short, are the Abbots and Adams of the world likely to do better than the Youngs and the Yorks?

Past research gave me good reason to think so. Last year, American economists Liran Einav, of Stanford University, California, and Leeat Yariv, of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, analyzed the surnames of academics working in economics departments at US universities, and found that those with initials early in the alphabet were more likely to be in the best-rated departments, to become fellows of the Econometric Society and even to win a Nobel Prize.

Publishing their findings in The Journal of Economic Perspectives, they argued that such "alphabetical discrimination" was probably due to the convention of listing authors of academic journal papers in alphabetical order, resulting in professors with surnames towards the start of the alphabet appearing to be more prominent in their field than their alphabetically challenged peers.

I wondered whether the same effect might apply outside the world of economics. After all, whether it is on a school register, at a job interview, or in the exam hall, people with surnames towards the start of the alphabet are used to being first.

Given that we often associate the top of a list with winners and the bottom with losers, could all of these small experiences add up and make a long-term impact on someone's life?

Everyone participating in the Telegraph experiment was asked to indicate their sex, age, surname and rate how successful they had been in various aspects of their life, such as their health, finances, career, and "life in general". Scores in all these categories were added up to obtain an overall "measure of success".

The results revealed that readers whose surnames began with letters at the beginning of the alphabet did indeed rate themselves as significantly more successful overall than those with surnames starting with lowly, end-of-the-alphabet initials.

The surname effect was especially pronounced when it came to career, suggesting that alphabetical discrimination was alive and well in the workplace. Interestingly, the effect was also more visible in men than in women. This may, of course, reflect the fact that many women change their surname when they marry. Perhaps women who are considering whether to adopt their husband's surname should take into account the alphabetical implications - or choose a real Alpha-male in the first place.

What might account for this seemingly strange effect? One pattern in the data provided an important clue.

The surname effect became more pronounced in older age groups, suggesting that it was not due to childhood experiences, but rather that it built up gradually during our lives. It seems that constant exposure to being at the top or bottom of the alphabet league - the A-list or the Z-list - slowly makes an impact on the way in which people see themselves.

Again, as I reported before my surname investigation, past studies suggest that this is a real possibility.

In 1999, Nicholas Christenfeld and his colleagues from the University of California, San Diego, uncovered evidence suggesting that a person's initials might affect perhaps the most important aspect of their life - the moment of their death. Using a large, computerised database of death certificates, they identified people whose initials formed a positive-sounding word (such as A.C.E., H.U.G. and J.O.Y.), and those that had very negative connotations, like P.I.G., B.U.M. and D.I.E. Using factors such as race, year of death and socio-economic status as controls, the researchers discovered that men with positive initials lived approximately four and a half years longer than average, whereas those with negative initials died about three years early.

Women with positive initials lived an extra three years, although there was no detrimental effect for those with negative initials. Further analysis suggested that those with negative initials were especially likely to die from psychological causes, such as suicides and self-inflicted accidents.

So should these results give those whose surname initial falls towards the end of the alphabet cause for concern? Well, as a Wiseman, and therefore someone with a lifetime's experience of coming towards the bottom of alphabetical lists, I take some comfort from the fact that the effect is very small. Then again, when you look at some of the best-known people around today - Blair, Brown, Bush, Cameron, Branson - it does make me wonder.


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