Where Brain Science and Marketing Meet

Why Your Middle Initial Makes You Smarter

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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!

11 Comments
  1. Gil Reich says

    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.

    1. Roger Dooley
      Twitter: rogerdooley
      says

      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. 🙁

  2. nalts says

    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!

  3. Tag Goulet says

    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)

    1. Roger Dooley
      Twitter: rogerdooley
      says

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

  4. Hannah Rodabaugh says

    This is fascinating. But why does it occur in this way?

    Why does specificity imply intelligence to others?

    Clearly, if I ask two people to describe an object, the person with the most thoughtful and detailed description would come off to me as most intelligent.

    What science backs up this idea?

    1. Roger Dooley
      Twitter: rogerdooley
      says

      The science is here, Hannah: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/ejsp.2026/full

      Why does it work? Perhaps it’s a class thing that suggests a higher level of education and/or social status? The guy who cuts your lawn is Chris Jones, but your philosophy professor (or favorite business tycoon) is Christopher T. Jones, III?

  5. Shelly Korb-Gayring says

    I’d love to see the science behind hyphenated last names. I’d bet it has the same results. After no success I decided to start to hyphenate on my resume when I was job hunting, I found it had an effect on the number of interviews I landed.

    1. Roger Dooley
      Twitter: rogerdooley
      says

      Interesting, Shelly. Could it be a gender thing, since in the US more women hyphenate? Or just a “class” indicator? I guess a woman who hyphenates is saying something about the value of both names. Hmmm…

    2. Gil Reich
      Twitter: GilR
      says

      Fascinating. A hyphenated last name is definitely signalling. I suspect for many people it says “feminist.” I wonder how that plays in different industries, different locations, etc.

  6. Naomi says

    This is interesting. Like those commenting above, I’d be interested to see where the research factors in on gender. I am currently trying to determine whether my name, Naomi West, would be strengthened by including my middle initial, Naomi M. West on my business card. Thanks for sharing this.

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