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What’s In a Name? People Who Share Initials Work Well Together

by Evan Polman Wednesday, December 11, 2013
Think about your circle of close friends. How many of them share your first or last initial? Now think of some situations where you’ve met someone new and felt that you instantly hit it off. Did some of those people have similar names to yours?

Most of us aren’t conscious that we seem to like places, people, and products that have names that resemble our own names, but this fascinating preference exists all the same. Previous research has found that people are disproportionately likely to work at companies, buy stocks, donate to charities, and prefer brands with names that begin with the same letters as their own initials. As other researchers have put it, “Toby is more likely to buy a Toyota, move to Toronto, and marry Tonya than is Jack, who is more likely to buy a Jaguar, move to Jacksonville, and marry Jackie.”

In my research I have shown that seemingly superficial and non-diagnostic similarities, such as sharing a birthday or a name, are sufficient to create meaningful social bonds among people. 

In a recently published paper, I found that when people work in groups with others who share their initials, those groups perform better than groups whose members’ initials are all different. (Perhaps we can say that the paper itself is also a testament to the name-letter effect: the study was a collaboration among myself, Monique Pollmann of Tilburg University, and Andrew Poehlman of Southern Methodist University.)

In our study, we first looked at undergraduates assigned to four-person teams for a group project in a course on organizational behavior. Based on surveys the group members completed, we found that the higher the proportion of group members who shared initials, the higher groups scored on measures of performance, collective efficacy (members’ perceptions of how successful the group was at collaborating), and adaptive conflict (members’ ability to get along and resolve conflict if it arose).

In the second study, instead of studying randomly formed groups, we intentionally designed the groups so that half the teams would have exactly two members who shared a first initial (out of a total of 4 to 6 students on the team). For the other half of the groups, all team members had different first initials. We assigned each group to complete a “murder mystery” exercise in which members of the group are given different information and they must piece together their clues to identify the culprit. A full 70 percent of the teams whose members shared an initial—but only 41 percent of groups whose members did not—correctly solved the mystery. The results confirm the potent influence that sharing initials among members can have on group outcomes.

As intriguing as this finding is, we believe more research on the name-letter effect is warranted, including investigating how this effect operates. We also feel it’s important for managers to be aware of the name-letter effect on group dynamics. Of course, it is not always possible to arrange for people with similar names to work together, but in cases where it is possible, or where there is some degree of randomness in how the teams are formed, then we think managers would be wise to place employees who share initials on teams together.