How Much Does Your Name Affect Where You Work?

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Names define us, but do they determine who we are? In many cultures, names have special meanings and are believed to affect people's personalities and the courses of their lives. The Jewish mystical discipline of Kabbalah, for example, posits that a person's name has a direct relationship with their condition in life -- so much so that changing your name can alter it.

But what does science have to say on the subject? A recent study looked at how our names might affect where we choose to work. The result? Not surprising, the new study found no relationship -- but an earlier study did.

The idea that our names -- particularly the first letters of our names -- can influence our decisions, including whom we marry and where we move is what psychologists call "implicit egotism."

In 2008, two Belgian researchers found that workers in their country were more likely to choose a workplace if the first letter of its name matched their own. But University of Pennsylvania associate professor Uri Simonsohn believes the Belgians got the cause and effect exactly backwards.

What's Really in a Name? Your Family


"Henry Ford, for example, worked for a company starting with F [Ford (F)] not because of an unconscious attraction to that letter, but because he named the company after himself," writes Simonsohn in a commentary to be published in an upcoming issue of Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

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Think of Walt Disney's Disney (DIS) or Sam Walton's Wal-Mart (WMT) to name a couple more. Similarly, many small family owned businesses are exactly so christened, and family members with the same last names work there, sometimes for generations.

Simonsohn revisited the Belgian study with similar U.S. data from records of political donations made during the 2004 campaigns, which include donors' names and employers. When he just compared first initials, he indeed found more than 2.5 times as many people work for an employer with a matching initial as would be expected by chance.

But when he corrected for possible reverse causality -- people working in family businesses -- either by comparing the first three letters or by looking only at larger companies (assuming family businesses tend to be smaller), he found that the number of people who worked for an employer with an initial matching their own was essentially what you would expect to find based on random chance.

Tipping the Balance


Still, Simonsohn doesn't discount implicit egotism altogether. While he told DailyFinance he found no evidence of it in the three decisions he examined -- marriage, moving and work place -- he added it certainly affects some decisions, such as "what [people] name their children," and also those involving choices in which we don't have a strong opinion.

"Say I like things with the letter "U" more than with other letters," Uri Simonsohn explained. The effect "is unlikely to be huge" so for it to tip the balance of choice between two options, they had "better be very similar or hard for me to tease apart."

For example, he said: "I have no clue which wine is better, so I may buy more wines starting with U than you would. But I would not move to another country, have another profession or marry another woman for that reason alone."

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