Tyranny of the Alphabet

How to protect your pockets.
Jan. 28 2011 6:16 PM

Tyranny of the Alphabet

A new study explores how your last name influences how fast you buy stuff.

Illustration by Rob Donnelly. Click image to expand.

My surname falls almost precisely in the middle of the alphabet, N being the 14th of 26 letters. That may explain my previous indifference to the societal implications of alphabetization. Or perhaps I should say alphabetism, defined as discrimination against people whose last names fall near the end of the alphabet. We're talking about you, David Vitter, Reese Witherspoon, Carl Yastrzemski, and Fareed Zakaria (though it doesn't seem to have held any of them back). According to a new study in the Journal of Consumer Research (registration required) by Kurt A. Carlson, assistant professor at Georgetown's McDonough School of Business, and Jacqueline M. Conard, assistant professor at Belmont University's Massey Graduate School of Business, the farther back in the alphabet the first letter of your surname falls, the quicker you're likely to chase some enticing new consumer offer. This response is rooted in childhood trauma.

To the extent I ever thought about this issue at all, I was inclined to believe that having your name at the end of the alphabet set you apart from the common herd in a good way. My Slate colleague and friend of 30 years, Emily Yoffe, has always been among the easiest people to find in what was, at various stages of my life, my address book, my Rolodex, my Palm Pilot, my PDA, and my bouquet of Apple devices (iTouch, iPhone, iPad). No matter what the platform, the way to find Emily was always the same: Go right to the end! Family members, by comparison, could be found only by stumbling around the middle, tempting me more than once not to send them Christmas cards. But Emily set me straight, confiding, for instance, that applause at her nephew Zachary Yoffe's graduation from the Naval Academy "was considerably less than for the kid whose last name was Anderson." She directed me to this survey in the Telegraph of London, in which readers with surnames at the start of the alphabet rated themselves more successful than readers with surnames at the end. Even in my address-book competition, Emily's advantage from being at the end is bested by that of my friend of 35 years, David Atkins, who resides at the beginning.

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Less obviously anecdotal research methods yield the same result. A 2006 study by Liran Einav, an assistant professor of economics at Stanford, and Leeat Yariv, an associate professor of economics at CalTech, found that faculty members "with earlier surname initials are significantly more likely to receive tenure at top ten economics departments" in the United States and, "to a lesser extent, are more likely to receive the Clark Medal and the Nobel Prize." A likely reason is that academic papers by economists typically list the authors' names alphabetically. For comparison's sake, Einav and Yariv (or should I say Yariv and Einav?) looked at top psychology departments and found no such correlation; psychology papers, like papers in the medical and "hard" sciences, do not typically rank authors alphabetically, but instead rank them according to who did the most work, which does seem more logical. Even for economists, the correlation Einav and Yariv posited was not perfect. It diminished when they expanded their survey from the top ten economics departments to the top 35. (And it disappears entirely when applied to their own academic careers. Five years after they published their alphabetization study, Einav labors at Stanford as a mere associate professor of economics, while Yariv has become a full professor at CalTech!) But Einav and Yariv's findings were robust enough to prompt political scientists, who today collaborate more on academic papers than they did in years past, to begin debating whether they should stop alphabetizing authorship. Alphabetical ordering of political candidates on ballots has long been observed to confer a significant advantage to the name that comes first, and in 2004 a man named Tom Zych made "the tyranny of alphabetical order" a central issue in his write-in campaign for president. "I spent many years in the back right hand corner of classrooms," Zych said, "at the ends of lines."

Carlson and Conard break new ground by measuring not the immediate but rather the long-term effect of having a surname at the alphabet's end, and how that, in turn, affects buying patterns. Their working hypothesis is that "[R]epeated delays imposed on children whose last names are late in the alphabet create in those individuals a chronic expediency motive that is automatically activated" by limited-time offers to buy stuff. In effect, Carlson and Conard believe the R-to-Z set will prove easier prey for "act now!" marketing pitches than the A-to-I set.

Carlson and Conard tested their thesis four ways.

1.) Business school students were invited by e-mail to receive up to four free tickets to attend a basketball game. The students were told there was a limited supply and that tickets would be given away on a first-come, first-serve basis. Seventy-six students put in requests before all the tickets were spoken for. Average response time was 23 minutes (students love getting free stuff!). Response time correlated negatively with alphabetic rank. In other words, students at the end of the alphabet put their bids in, on average, earliest.

2.) E-mails were sent out to adults offering them $500 to participate in a survey. Average response time was between six and seven hours. The same negative correlation between response time and alphabetic rank was observed, but only when the researchers looked at the names the respondents were born with. When Carlson and Conard looked at married names or names changed for some other reason, the correlation dwindled to insignificance. This, they conclude, demonstrates that the "last name effect" derives from "a childhood response tendency." Only people who grew up with a name at the back of the alphabet demonstrated truly Pavlovian responses to the $500 offer.

3.) Students of drinking age in a wine-appreciation class were told, verbally, that they could receive $5 and a free bottle of wine if they participated in a wine survey. Average response time was about six hours. Again, a negative correlation was found between response time and alphabetic rank. The R-Zs responded, on average, about an hour faster than the A-Is. Carlson and Conard also compared the responders as a whole with the students who didn't respond. The R-Zs were more likely to be responders.

4.) Undergraduate students who were paid to participate in this and other studies were asked to imagine the following situation: You need a new backpack and as you pass a bookstore you see that it's selling brand-name backpacks for 20 percent off "while supplies last." But you don't have your wallet with you! It would take you 15 minutes to go home, get your wallet, and come back to the store. Do you do that right away? Yet again there was a negative correlation between (hypothetical) response time and alphabetic rank. The R-Zs were more likely to say they would trudge home and back to take advantage of the sale.

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