Why Your Middle Initial Makes You Smarter

middle initial
Years ago, I stopped using my middle initial on business cards, bylines, and other places. I’m not quite sure why I changed… simplicity? Google? New research shows that making that switch might have been a dumb move.

Would you be smarter if you used your middle initial? Probably not. But you might seem smarter to other people! A new study shows that subjects who read written material rated the writer as more intelligent if the writer had a middle initial.

At first glance, this appears to make no sense, a characteristic of many surprising findings in psychology research. But, the scientists teased out the underlying logic: middle initials were associated with intellectual domains. A professor might be David F. Clark, while your car mechanic would likely be known as David Clark. (Or maybe just “Big Dave!”)

The middle initial effect wasn’t foolproof. The researchers found they could cancel the boost in perceived intellect by providing non-matching status cues, e.g., suggesting that the piece was written by a member of the pub darts club. (I’m sure many intellectuals actually do play darts at their local, but we’re working with stereotypes here.)

If One Middle Initial Is Good…

The scientists tested a variety of combinations, and TWO middle initials provided an even bigger boost than one. Unfortunately, the subjects weren’t asked to rate the probability that the writer was a pretentious jerk.

Should You Add An Initial (or Two)?

If you are seeking credibility in a professional or academic setting, it’s possible that an initial might give you a tiny boost. So, for magazine articles, guest blog posts on serious topics, etc., why not give it a try? Perhaps speakers should consider it, too.

There are a couple of downsides that I can see. One is that Google might be a bit confused by references to “James Smith” in some places and “James F. Smith” in others. And will searchers (who perhaps heard you mentioned in passing, or met you at a conference) remember your middle initial? Probably not. For web content you create, be sure to establish Google authorship – that will resolve any initial confusion, and have a variety of other benefits as well.

The other drawback of adding the middle initial to your personal brand (beyond striking a few people as pretentious) is that it begs the question, “Why?” Is there another person with the same name, better known, that you are trying to distinguish yourself from? (Indeed, that probably was one reason I used mine when I began my business career. My father, with whom I shared my name, was an author, film critic, and professor – had Google been around a few decades ago, I probably would have had to use my middle name just to be found at all!)

Here’s an experiment you can try… Make reservations at a popular restaurant, and add a couple of middle initials to your name (like J.R.R. Tolkien). Let us know if you get a better-than-usual table and quicker seating!

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This post was written by:

— who has written 985 posts on Neuromarketing.

Roger Dooley writes and speaks about marketing, and in particular the use of neuroscience and behavioral research to make advertising, marketing, and products better. He is the primary author at Neuromarketing, and founder of Dooley Direct LLC, a marketing consultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

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5 responses to "Why Your Middle Initial Makes You Smarter" — Your Turn

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Gil Reich 13. May 2014 at 9:21 am

Interesting. I think the “(beyond striking a few people as pretentious)” is more than a parenthetical concern.

It probably also depends on the letter. My middle initial is B, which turns a name into a verb phrase, and only works with last names like Goode. “I” probably makes you sound like a narcissist or a new Apple product. I should have given my kids middle names like Quimby. Q is a solid middle initial. Or Quality. James Q Wilson. And Quality is my middle name. Oh well, too late.

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Roger Dooley
Twitter: rogerdooley
13. May 2014 at 9:36 am

Hmmm, Gil, maybe the researchers will test a series of different letters. Good point about the way some could be interpreted, either by spelling words or sounding like a phrase. We share “B” as a middle initial, and I used it for quite a few years. If I wanted to sound even more pretentious, I could use my confirmation name. Unfortunately, its initial is “J” – having the pair “B.J.” in the middle would be less than optimal. :(

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nalts 13. May 2014 at 3:02 pm

NICE tip. As soon as I read the headline, I felt it made COMPLETE sense. I used to be OCD about Kevin H. Nalty… then I stopped because I felt it was gratuitous. There’s only one other Kevin Nalty and we don’t bump into each other.

I’m back on it!

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Tag Goulet 14. May 2014 at 3:30 am

Roger, I would be curious to know if this research also applies to women. I suspect it works primarily for men, but would love to hear that the researchers also included female names in their study and their reported findings apply to both genders.
- Therese Goulet (who goes by Tag Goulet)

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Roger Dooley
Twitter: rogerdooley
14. May 2014 at 2:59 pm

Good question, Tag. I wouldn’t assume that women’s names are immune to the initial effect… Maybe you should try T. A. G. :)

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