First initial of last name could foretell one's success or setback in life

Published: March 17, 2017 By ,

Wooden letter cubes (stock image).

Pixabay image.

As the end of the school year approaches, the season of recognition – with awards ceremonies, performances and graduations – flourishes for many.

But there might be more than just hard work to people's successes and fates. The coincidental detail of where one's last name falls in the alphabet can affect life outcomes, according to Professor Jeffrey Zax and graduate student Alexander Cauley, both of the Department of Economics. Those with names in the latter half of the alphabet are negatively impacted – an occurrence that can begin at an early age.

"If your name is at the end of the alphabet, you're less likely to be identified by teachers as an outstanding student," said Zax. Zax and Cauley presented their paper on the subject in January to the Allied Social Sciences Association.

For the study, the team used the data of 3,281 males from a Wisconsin-based longitudinal study that intermittently surveyed the participants from the time they graduated from high school in 1957 through 2011.

Among the data, they looked at sets of people who were nearly identical in IQ, academic performance and other areas, but had alphabetically different last names. Then they compared the participants' academic and life outcomes.

"Statistically, we were looking at two people who were carbon copies of each other," said Zax. "Even though they were the same in every other way, the fellow with the initial at the front of the alphabet was substantially more likely to be designated informally by teachers as an outstanding student."

The team found that the name-alphabet correlation, coined “alphabetism,” set in motion in the classroom carried on into early career-hood.

"This was all just really dramatic. It's purely the initial doing it," Zax said. "The probability of being designated an outstanding student drops by about 10 percent for a 10-letter gap. If you're a Clark, you're maybe 10 percent more likely to be identified as an outstanding student than your twin who happens to take on the last name of Norton."

Luckily, as people reach mid-adulthood the problem disappears, presumably because the effects of alphabetism are "superseded by observable characteristics that are more directly expressive of ability" in people, stated the authors in the paper.

"The good piece of news is that the effects that we saw seem to dissipate by the 30s," said Zax. "We saw them very strongly at the end of high school and through college and in the first labor market experiences. They were gone by the age of 35 and they remained absent at 52."

Zax has advice for students with late-in-the-alphabet names (a situation he knows personally): "Get noticed! Find some other way to distinguish yourself."

As for teachers, his advice is to call the class roll in reverse order – something he's been doing for 15 years.

"That's my little personal blow against alphabetic injustice," he said.