Two CU Boulder scholars, one named Zax, find value in having a last name that starts near A.
Alex Cauley and Jeffrey Zax may come from opposite ends of the alphabet, but they see eye to eye on certain things.
They agree, for instance, that the first letter of a person’s last name can make a big difference in life, and they’ve got evidence to prove it.
In a recent study, Zax and Cauley (Math, Econ’12; PhdEcon’18) — a CU Boulder economist and graduate student, respectively — found that having a surname starting with a deep-alphabet letter, such as Z, can be a significant disadvantage. The reverse is also true, they said.
Specifically, people with deep-alphabet surnames are less likely to perform well in high school and less likely to attend college. If they do attend college, they’re more likely to drop out. And they’re less likely to land a highly desirable first job.
“I always thought there was going to be some effect,” said Cauley. “I didn’t think it would mean this much.”
The CU study relied on information from nearly 3,300 men who graduated from Wisconsin high schools in 1957 and are also part of a separate longterm project called the Wisconsin Longitudinal Study.
Other scholars have noted consequences of alphabetical ordering. Zax and Cauley are the first to study the influence of the first letter of the last name.
The good news for the world’s Wagners, Youngs and Zwicks is that alphabetism's effects seem to disappear by age 35, said the researchers, whose paper, “Alphabetism: The effects of surname initial and the risk of being otherwise undistinguished,” is in peer review.
Zax and Cauley suggest the bias stems from the common use of alphabetical ordering as an organizing method and propose that people farther from A are more easily overlooked and therefore get fewer opportunities, at least early in life.
By midlife, they’ve found or developed ways to stand out and thus overcome the alphabetical bias.
“We don’t believe anybody’s got it out for people with initials at the end of the alphabet,” said Zax, whose research focuses on inequality.
Another bit of good news (for some people) is that the bias does not seem to apply to those who are somehow distinguished — positively or negatively. The conspicuously smart or dim and especially attractive or unattractive, for example, tend to be noticed by teachers and others in influential positions, and thus get attention and opportunities irrespective of their surnames.
Take Zax, for example, who would go to Harvard and become a professor. As a child in Rochester, N.Y., his aptitude for learning helped him stand out, he believes, neutralizing any disadvantage his last name might have conferred.
“I kind of enjoyed being at the end of the list,” he said. “I was never concerned that I was somehow being disregarded.”
Similarly, Cauley, who was born in Russia and resettled in Wyoming as a teen, appears immune to alphabetism: He’s noticed no relevant difference in life since adopting his stepfather’s last name at age 24, he said, although C is 10 places ahead of M, the initial of his original surname, Mikhaylov.
But it’s been bothering Zax that, at commencements, for instance, the early-alphabet graduates get all the applause. “By the time the Rs are going across the stage,” he said, “a third of the audience is gone.”
So he tries to strike a blow against alphabetism when he can. In his CU classes, he hands back papers and tests in reverse alphabetical order.
“I’ve been doing that for 15 years,” he said.
Illustration by David Plunkert