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Name Letter Effect: Why I Might Like the Letter “A” More Than You Do

In a recent post, I wrote about one study in price psychology that showed the advantages of matching a price to something specific about the consumer. In that case, it was matching the price to the person’s birthday (i.e., someone born on January 10th is a little more likely to buy something priced at $39.10 than someone born on January 11th).

It goes further than just birthday matching, though. Would you believe that someone named Sarah would be more drawn to a $67 product than someone named Michelle? According to the name letter effect (more on that in a bit), people have a subtle bias toward letters in their own name. Since “Sarah” starts with S as do “sixty” and “seven,” then Sarah has a subtle affinity for a $67 price tag that Michelle doesn’t.

In a series of studies, Keith Coulter and Dhruv Grewal tested this effect by creating prices tailored to people’s names. In one of those studies, they selected two groups of people from the phone book: people whose last names began with “T” and people whose last names began with “E” (of course, these people didn’t realize that they’d been selected on the basis of their names). Everyone heard a short radio ad for a bicycle, and the bike was priced at either $622 or $688. The price everyone heard was chosen at random.

After they heard the commercial, everyone was asked how likely they would be to purchase this bike. Let’s look at the T-name people’s preferences first. Not surprisingly, the T-namers who were told that the bike was $622 thought they were more likely to buy this bike, compared to the T-namers who were told that it was $688. After all, it’s cheaper! But could it be that part of this difference was because “six twenty-two” includes the “T” sound in their own names?

To see if that’s at all plausible, let’s look at the E-name people. For ego pricing to be a reality, they’d have to be drawn to the higher price because “six eighty-eight” includes the “E” in their names. That’s actually what the study found. The E-namers who were told that the bike was $688 thought they were more likely to buy this bike, compared to the E-namers would were told that it was $622.

Beyond Price Psychology

That pricing effect speaks to a much bigger idea: we like the letters in our own name. It sounds silly, but it seems to be true. That is, since my initials are “AL,” I have a particular affinity for those letters. Someone whose initials are “SG,” on the other hand, wouldn’t necessarily care much for “A” or “L” but would instead be drawn to Ss and Gs. This is what’s become known as name letter preferences or the name letter effect.

How have psychologists tested the name letter effect? In one early study, researchers told participants that they were interested in the “attractiveness of random symbols.” Nonsense. In reality, the researchers designed a special set of stimuli for each participant based on the letters in his or her name.

Each person simply saw pairs of letters–one of which was a letter in his or her own name and one of which wasn’t. The results showed that people had clear preferences for the letters in their own names over letters that weren’t in their names, and these patterns existed both for letters in the first name and letters in the last name. Interestingly, people never caught onto the fact that the letters they saw were all letters in their names.

Does Your Name Determine Your Fate?

Now let’s not get dramatic. But this is where things get even more interesting. Let’s look at what happens when researchers turn their attention to how people’s homes and occupations relate to the names their parents gave them.

In a creative twist on otherwise dull academic titles, a 2002 paper titled Why Susie Sells Seashells by the Seashore presents data from census surveys, social security records, and other national databases to show that our names might bias us toward certain outcomes.

First, it turns out that when people have names that sound like a state in the U.S., they’re disproportionately likely to live in that state. For example, Georges were disproportionately likely to live in Georgia, Louises were disproportionately likely to live in Louisiana, and Kenneths were disproportionately likely to live in Kentucky (among other name-state matches).

Similarly, when they looked at people living in “Saint” cities, people named Paul are disproportionately likely to live in St. Paul, and people named Louis are disproportionately likely to live in St. Louis. Importantly, these patterns are true even when you just look at people who moved into a particular place (i.e., it’s not just that parents like naming kids after where they live).

These name effects are also related to the occupations that people choose. For example, there are more people named “Dennis” and “Denise” who are dentists than you’d expect by chance, and there are more people named “Lawrence” and “Laura” who are lawyers than you’d expect by chance.

So the next time you feel an urge to visit St. Petersburg or marry someone with your same last name (no, seriously), you may have fallen prey to the name letter effect.

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