Things I wish were true

Implicit egotism, or more specifically, the name letter effect is the idea that people tend to be attracted to things that are similar to their name.

I’m not sure why I like the idea of the name letter effect. Maybe it’s because I read the Mr Men books when I was little, and Mr Tickle liked to, well, tickle. And Mr Bump, err, bumped into things. Which was humorous as well as appropriate.

So it was fun to think that Denis might be keen on dentistry. It also fitted with various bits of anecdotal evidence that I clearly placed far too much weight on (damn you, availability heuristic) – such as someone I know called Claire, who applied to Clare College, Cambridge. She didn’t get in – maybe because it could have got too confusing. Or Nicholas Economides, who is an economist. It gave the Mr Men books a layer of realism. A layer, which I now know, was a mere delusion.

Yes, I know this, now that I have read “Spurious? Name Similarity Effects (Implicit Egotism) in Marriage, Job and Moving Decisions“, by Uri Simonsohn from the University of Pennsylvania. Here are some of the illusions that the paper shattered (I’m still hoping he’s wrong).

1) People are more likely to marry people with the same or similar last name

Apparently not true, once you account for higher probability of marriage within ethnic groups, divorced couples re-marrying, and the substantial number of brides who change their last name to that of their husbands’ in advance of actually getting married (how organised are they?!)

2) People are more likely to pick professions that sound like their name

Studies that suggest that Denises are more likely to be dentists and Lauras more likely to be lawyers suffer from a flaw: they don’t take into account the fact that the popularity of different names go up and down over time – possibly in coincidental step with the growth of particular professions.

3) People choose to live in places that have the same name as them

Uri points out several other effects that needs to be taken into account – for example, historical figures might influence people’s last names as well as street names. He says “Cesar Chavez is a Hispanic historic figure who has a disproportionate share of streets named after him in states with large Hispanic populations”.

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