Success Predetermined By Your Name? Study Finds Your Last Initial Can Hurt Your Chances

BOULDER, Colo. — Could your last name play a role in the success of your academic and professional careers? A new study finds that people whose last initial is among the beginning letters of the alphabet are more likely to see greater success, especially in school.

Conversely, those who always have to wait the longest to raise their hand during roll call are subject to more negative effects, according to researchers from the University of Colorado Boulder.

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A new study finds that students who last name fall in the beginning of the alphabet are more likely to be viewed as “outstanding” students by their teachers.

“If your name is at the end of the alphabet, you’re less likely to be identified by teachers as an outstanding student,” says economics professor and co-author of the study, Jeffrey Zax, in a university release.

The team of researchers, led by Zax and graduate student Alexander Cauley, looked at data from a Wisconsin-based longitudinal study of 3,281 males. The participants were monitored and surveyed periodically from the time they graduated high school in 1957 through 2011, with researchers paying particular attention to how well the men performed in school and how successful they were in their adult lives.

The results showed that those whose last names fell earlier in the alphabet were notably more likely to be viewed in a more positive light by their teachers. To keep the playing field as level as possible, the team only compared participants who had similar IQs and similar grades.

“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,” says Zax.

Researchers determined that a 10-letter gap holds a weight of about 10% when it comes to the drop in odds of favorability by a teacher — so a student whose last name was “Morris” was about 10% less likely to be viewed as “outstanding” by a teacher than a classmate whose last name was “Brown.”

The effect, dubbed “alphabetism,” seemed to effect the participants mostly in their earlier adult years, and fizzle later on in life.

“The good piece of news is that the effects that we saw seem to dissipate by the 30s,” says 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 credits the drop-off to more realistic grading systems: a person’s general ability eventually carries more weight than an initial.

Of course, it may be no surprise that a person whose last name begins with “Z” might be the author of such a study. Being a teacher himself, he admits he’s called roll for his students in reverse the last 15 years.

“That’s my little personal blow against alphabetic injustice,” he says.

Zax and Cauley presented their paper, “Alphabetism: The effects of surname initial and the risk of being otherwise undistinguished,” in January to the Allied Social Sciences Association.

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