What's in a name?

Andrew Gelman quotes this paper (free access) by Leif Nelson and Joseph Simmons:

In five studies, we found that people like their names enough to unconsciously pursue consciously avoided outcomes that resemble their names. Baseball players avoid strikeouts, but players whose names begin with the strikeout-signifying letter K strike out more than others (Study 1). All students want As, but students whose names begin with letters associated with poorer performance (C and D) achieve lower grade point averages (GPAs) than do students whose names begin with A and B (Study 2), especially if they like their initials (Study 3). Because lower GPAs lead to lesser graduate schools, students whose names begin with the letters C and D attend lower-ranked law schools than students whose names begin with A and B (Study 4). Finally, in an experimental study, we manipulated congruence between participants’ initials and the labels of prizes and found that participants solve fewer anagrams when a consolation prize shares their first initial than when it does not (Study 5). These findings provide striking evidence that unconsciously desiring negative name-resembling performance outcomes can insidiously undermine the more conscious pursuit of positive outcomes.

The explanation? (Keep in mind this is a paper published in Psychological Science)

People like their names and initials (Nuttin, 1987). In fact, this name-letter effect (NLE) is influential enough to encourage the pursuit of name-resembling life outcomes and partners. [...]

Do people consciously or unconsciously pursue name-resembling outcomes? Do a few people named Jack deliberately move to Jacksonville for its Jack-resembling appeal, or are they driven by an unconscious desire? Researchers have certainly argued that the latter is true. The NLE is described as an indicator of implicit egotism (e.g., Koole, Dijksterhuis, & van Knippenberg, 2001; Jones et al., 2004; Pelham, Carvallo, & Jones, 2005; Pelham et al., 2002; Sherman & Kim, 2005), as own-name liking is thought to indicate unconscious self-liking.

I'm not convinced. To refer back to one of the quoted studies, how about students whose surnames start with 'F'? Shouldn't they be performing much worse than the C's and D's?

Two potential explanations here:

1. Omitted variable bias. For example, say that names that start with C or D are way less frequent in the population of Asian students compared to Anglo-Saxon surnames. Further, assume that Asians are discriminated against when it comes to college admission, perhaps due to uncertainty about the quality of the schools they attend. That way, the average Asian in college will be a better student than the average Anglo-Saxon, and he will also be less likely to have a name that starts with C or D.

2. There are an infinite number of hypotheses, and a finite but very large number of original datasets. In other words, datamining - or if we want to be somewhat less harsh on the researcher, pure luck.

And talking of names, here's Levitt and Dubner approaching the issue from a completely different angle.

by datacharmer | Wednesday, November 28, 2007
  , , | | What's in a name? @bluematterblogtwitter


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