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The Lasting Impact of Last Names

Rachel Bachrach

When Shana Zelinger of Brooklyn, New York, married Shmayie Friedman, she looked forward to many things. One of them was a new last name. Just imagine, she thought gleefully. No longer would she be subject to being last in line. Their children wouldn’t be forced to sit in the back corner of the classroom. And think of the graduations, when Abramowitzes, Baums, and even Fines received their diplomas to the sound of thunderous clapping, while Zelingers were lucky to get even a smattering of applause.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Turns out, Shana may not be able to totally escape the trauma of her maiden name. A recent study in the Journal of Consumer Research says your childhood surname can influence, among other things, if you decide to respond to limited-time offers and how quickly you make that buying decision.

This phenomenon has been nicknamed the “last name effect” by Kurt A. Carlson of Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business and Jacqueline M. Conard of Belmont University’s Massey Graduate School of Business. Their research, which looked at the long-term effect of having a last name late in the alphabet, is the most recent in a series of studies of the impact names can have on behavior.

Professors Carlson and Conard found that people whose surnames begin with the letters A through I don’t make snap-buying decisions as quickly as those whose names begin with the letters R through Z. As children, people at the end of the alphabet had less access to items of limited stock, so when given the opportunity, they rush to redress the imbalance of being last.

A boy named Moshe Cymerman, for instance, is usually one of the first to choose his desk, his project topic, and his seat on the bus. By the time his classmate Moshe Yellen’s turn comes around, there are fewer options, so Moshe learns to make quick decisions, compensating for the fact that his turn came late in the game. Later in life, Moshe Yellen will probably be quicker to respond to time-sensitive offers and more likely to acquire items that are in limited stock.

The last name effect can have lifelong implications, because the phenomenon of alphabetization, or working off an alphabetic list, is reinforced time and time again throughout the formative years of childhood. And even though alphabetization is not as pervasive in adulthood — most grown-ups are not lining up for pizza or getting assignments based on their surname — it certainly exists. Invitation lists, job interviews, and phone trees are often organized alphabetically. If there is a shortage of copies, too few time slots, or if the call gets cut off, it’s those at the end that are penalized. This discrimination of those at the end of the alphabet, albeit unwitting, even has a name: alphabetism.


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