Study: To Command Respect, Try Using Your Middle Initial

Originally published on May 7, 2014 11:20 am

Robert Siegel talks to a pair of researchers who have studied names and how they are perceived by others. Are our evaluations of people's credibility swayed by how easily we can pronounce their names? Researchers in New Zealand have tried to find out. And in the U.K., another study has assessed how middle initials have a particular and powerful effect on how people are perceived.

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Recent research tells us two new things about our names and our credibility. When it comes to believability, people with names that are easily pronounced beat out the ones that are not.

ERYN NEWMAN: My name is Eryn Newman. I'm a postdoctoral scholar at the University of California, Irvine. We were interested in whether the ease of pronouncing someone's name would actually influence how we evaluate that person.

SIEGEL: And the answer is?

NEWMAN: Well, what we found is that people actually prefer others with easy to pronounce names.

SIEGEL: Oh, that is Dr. Eryn Newman. That's very easily pronounced. The second study, the authors of this one, study authors who include their middle initials - enhance their chances of being taken seriously.

ERIC RAYMOND IGOU: My name is Eric Raymond Igou. I'm a senior lecturer at the University of Limerick, in Ireland. We tested and found that adding a middle initial to a name makes one appear smarter.

SIEGEL: Well, that is Dr. Eric Igou in Limerick, Ireland. And I should say, thanks for sharing your research with us. And I should point out that the two of you have never met.

NEWMAN: That's right.

IGOU: No, not yet.

SIEGEL: And the studies about names have nothing to do with each other.

NEWMAN: That's right. Independent research.

IGOU: Yes, it's independent research. It falls into the category of studies about names and the effects that names have.

SIEGEL: Well, starting with Dr. Newman, can you tell us what you were looking for, and what you thought you would find - and how you went about discovering what you did?

NEWMAN: Well, when people evaluate objects, things like chemicals or drugs and even roller coasters, people actually prefer those objects that have easy to pronounce names. But the thing that we wondered was whether those effects would actually extend to people. And so to investigate this question, we created a set of easy and difficult names. And those easy and difficult names were only different by how easy they were to pronounce.

What we did is, we had a group of people look at each of these names. And we basically just said to these people, you know what? Tell us how familiar is this name, how dangerous do you think this person is? And what we found was a very systematic pattern; that is that people always preferred the names that were easy to pronounce.

SIEGEL: This is terrible news for a wonderful reporter colleague of ours named Doualy Xaykaothao.


NEWMAN: Yes. Not good news for them.

SIEGEL: But Dr. Igou, Doualy could at least become Doualy A. Xaykaothao and that might improve her credibility - with a middle initial.


IGOU: Yeah. That's interesting.

SIEGEL: Were you surprised by what you found with middle initials?

IGOU: Well, we observed that people have quite strong feelings about their names, including middle initials. So, for example, when it comes to submitting a manuscript, are the middle initials mentioned or not? We wondered, well, what's behind this? And what we found was that the essay was evaluated more favorably when there was a middle initial.

SIEGEL: I'm just curious to hear what each of you makes of the other's findings here, and whether they seem to lead you in similar directions. Dr. Newman, are you surprised or interested with the middle initial finding?

NEWMAN: I can see a sort of similarity or crossover there. You know, one thing we were really surprised about was that the pronunciation of the name affected people's judgments about other, sort of unrelated information. And it seems like the same is true with the middle initial - that the name affects the judgments about the essay.

SIEGEL: Now on the other hand, Dr. Igou, I should say, your last name is spelled I-g-o-u. You could have a more easily spelled name than that, or go more phonetic.

IGOU: That's true. My actual name is Eric Raymond Igou. I certainly have thought about my name a lot, and maybe that is also linked to this research in that I find it very interesting. Names are interesting. They carry meaning.

SIEGEL: Well, I'd like to thank both of you, Dr. Newman, is it Eryn J. Newman?

NEWMAN: That's correct. Yes.

SIEGEL: And Dr. Eric Igou - or Igou, elsewhere - from Limerick, Ireland, thank you very much.

IGOU: Thank you.

NEWMAN: Thank you. It's been a pleasure.

SIEGEL: Both of you have greatly enlightened us about what helps make a name more believable. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.