Why Browns Do Better Than Smiths

All Draw Curiosity videos are fully subtitled in English and Spanish. The blog post builds on the concepts touched upon in the video.

Is “alphabetic discrimination” backed by research?

Yes! (You wouldn’t catch me posting stuff not backed by peer-reviewed science!)

Of course, our names aren’t the greatest factor setting us back in life, but there is enough research out there to suggest that your placement in the alphabet does affect your success later on. Here is a summary of some of the research on this topic which I found the most interesting:

Why are early-alphabet economists more likely to be successful?

In 2006, researchers Liran Einav and Leeat Yariv at Stanford University wrote “What’s in a Surname? The Effects of Surname Initials on Academic Success” and found that you were more likely to win a Clarke Medal, a Nobel Prize and to achieve tenure as an economist if you were born in the first half of the alphabet. Interestingly, they performed the same test with tenure in psychology, and found that that relationship disappeared, and there is a very simple reason for that: authorship on papers in the field of economics are generally sorted alphabetically, meaning that people who have initials closer to the start of the alphabet are more likely to be first author and thus, more likely to open up new opportunities for them. However, this practice tends to be more of an exception than the rule in academia since, in the field of psychology (and biology), authorship order is generally granted based on merit and not on alphabetic placement.

Does having a surname early in the alphabet bring more success?

There is evidence to suggest that being born early in the alphabet can confer you with more benefits than being more likely to achieve tenure as an economist. Stepan Jurajda and Daniel Munich found in “Admission to Selective Schools, Alphabetically” found that in certain instances, people born higher in the alphabet were more likely to be admitted into certain schools and universities, which may be due to the fact that those applications were processed alphabetically. The same alphabetical sorting can also favour US Presidential votings, whose names are also sorted alphabetically on the ballot papers. It’s also been noted that there is a higher proportion of Nobel Prize and Clarke Medal winners in the first half of the alphabet.

Can your surnames affect your success in any other manners?

For some people it isn’t just the first letter of the alphabet but their entire name which can set them back. There are studies which show that people with perceived foreign surnames are less likely to be offered jobs than equally qualified applicants with non-foreign surnames. The study “Are Emily and Greg More Employable Than Lakisha and Jamal? A Field Experiment on Labor Market Discrimination”  by Marianne Bertrand and Sendhil Mullainathan showed that in the US, CVs sent with a ‘white’ name were likely to receive 50% more callbacks than an identical CV with a hispanic or black name, which would suggest conscious or unconscious bias in the employers. It has also been found that surnames that appear to be more easily readable or pronounceable are also more likely to be successful in life. Therefore, alphabetic discrimination isn’t the only systematic bias present when it comes to name, and there is evidence to suggest that factors that contribute to making a name stand out, have it clearly attributed to a particular socio-economic class and race or making it hard to understand do effectuate some degree of conscious and/or unconscious bias from other people.

Are there any psychological effects resulting from being born early in the alphabet?

A 2007 survey showed that there are some positive psychological effects from being born early in the alphabet, since those who are are much more likely to perceive themselves as being more successful. This did not correlate with whether they were in fact more successful, but I think one can argue that self-perception, self-confidence and self-esteem are important factors in our quality of life, and therefore a positive outlook on ourselves may be just as important.

Are there any psychological effects resulting from being born late in the alphabet?

Apparently, yes. Researchers Kurt  Carlson and Jacqueline Conard conducted an experiment in 2011 which led to the following paper: “The Last Name Effect: How Last Name Influences Acquisition Timing”. To summarise, they found that adults born with a surname starting later in the alphabet were more likely to make impulse purchases and buy items more quickly than adults born with surnames earlier in the alphabet. They found this relationship held up only for the last names they had during childhood, so even if they changed their surnames later on in life, it was the one they grew up with which impacted this behaviour. The reason behind it is untested, although they hypothesised that increased waiting times associated with last names closer to the end of the alphabet made it more likely for those with such surnames to try and reduce the waiting time when it is limited – so indeed, perhaps being born later in the alphabet could make you more likely to fall victim to impulse purchases.

How to avoid alphabetic discrimination

So remember – these are the three things to consider when ordering a list, especially when it is of people:

  1. Should your list be indexed? If YES – alphabetic sorting makes sense, if NO, it doesn’t.
  2. Should your list be ordered? If YES – determine what that order should be, if NO, randomise it.
  3. Are you adding to a list? If YES – you can always consider playing the game if you’re stumped between two options, and choose the one closer to the start of the alphabet.

In fact, the effects of ‘alphabetism’ or ‘alphabetic discrimination’ are slowly being stamped out. The effect is noted more strongly in our older generations, perhaps when school register orders, classroom seating and queues were more commonly dictated by strict alphabetical ordering. The fact that we are now aware of these matters, and can easily randomise orders and actively prevent this effect could be a simple way of eliminating this minor bias and restoring a degree of neutrality to the ordering of surnames.

I hope you enjoyed and learned something new today! I would love to know, are you high or low in the alphabet? And did you grow up finding that everyone loved ordering everyone alphabetically, and if so, do you think it has affected you in any manner? Do let me know in the comments down below! If you enjoyed this blog and would like to be notified of new entries, consider signing up to the mailing list here and subscribing to the YouTube channel!

One thought on “Why Browns Do Better Than Smiths

  1. I randomly (not sure if that is correct after watching your videos) found your web site today. I’ve listened to several and am hooked! In our business we present operations reviews on an ongoing basis. Generally the first 1-2 people will get more questions than the last person…..and yes we generally go by alphabetic sorting, with some exceptions. By the time we get to the end, folks have either heard one form of the presentation or another and can get bored. Dependent upon the mood of leadership, it isn’t always a bad thing to be in the mid to lower part of the alphabet.

    I look forward to learning more from your website and some of the others you have suggested. What a great way to learn.

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