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Name letter effect

Dr. Simon Moss


Nuttin (1987) showed that individuals tend to like both their names and initials, called the name-letter effect. In particular, they appear to like their initials more than other letters of the alphabet.

Two key implications emerge from the name letter effect. First, this effect affects the preferences of individuals towards other pursuits, products, and services. For example, individuals whose first name begins with a T, such as Toby, are more likely than individuals whose first name begins with a J, such as Jack, to pursue goals or purchase objects that also begin with a T. They are more inclined to purchase Toyotas rather than Jaguars, live in Toronto rather than Jacksonville, and marry a person called Tonya rather than Jackie (Jones, Pelham, Carvallo, & Mirenberg, 2004 Pelham, Mirenberg, & Jones, 2002 Pelham, Mirrenberg, & Jones, 2002). Similarly, individuals called Jonathon prefer a brand called Jonoki, whereas individuals called Elizabeth will prefer a brand called Elioki (Brendl, Chattopadhyay, Pelham, & Carvallo, 2005).

Second, the extent to which individuals demonstrate this preference reflects the extent to which they perceive themselves favorably. Hence, this preference is sometimes conceptualized as an implicit measure of self esteem.

Unconscious preferences

Some evidence indicates these preferences are unconscious and inadvertent. When conditions deter conscious processing, the name letter effect is augmented-that is, participants are especially inclined to like their initials-if they report high self esteem on explicit measures (Koole et al., 2001). In contrast, when the conditions encourage conscious, deliberate processing, this relationship between the name letter effect and explicit self esteem dissipates (Koole et al., 2001). The name letter effect, if merely a representation of conscious processes, should be uncorrelated with explicit self esteem when such processes are impeded.

Dijksterhuis (2004) also demonstrated that perhaps the name-letter effect reflects unconscious processes. In this study, participants were exposed to a series of positive words, each of which coincided with stimuli that relate to themselves, such as a photograph of their face. These stimuli, however, were presented subliminally. Nevertheless, these stimuli, which were not recognized consciously, augmented the name-letter effect.

Indeed, preferences towards objects or pursuits that begin with their initials persist, even if these behaviors compromise other goals. For example, as Nelson and Simmons (2007) showed, if their initials include a C or D, they are more inclined to receive Cs and Ds at school or university than As or Bs. That is, Cs and Ds do not seem as aversive to individuals with one of these letters in their initials;& these individuals will not strive to receive As or Bs to the same extent as everyone else.

Similarly, suppose individuals attempt a series of problems, such as anagrams. In addition, these individuals are informed they will receive a lottery ticket, labeled A, in which the prize is worth $1000 provided they solve over half the problems. In contrast, they will receive a lottery ticket, labeled D, in which the prize is worth only $100 if they solve fewer than half the problems. Individuals with an initial labeled D will perceive the low prize as more attractive, and therefore do not devote appreciable effort into this task. This inclination arises because individuals tend to perceive themselves as special. Anything they relate to themselves, such as their initials, is also conferred this special status (Nelson & Simmons, 2007).

Theoretical explanations

The name-letter effect has been ascribed to implicit egoism, as propounded by Pelham, Carvallo, and Jones (2005). In particular, individuals like to perceive themselves favorably. Hence, any object or concept they feel is connected to the self is also conferred this favorable status.

Implicit egotism might have evolved to boost self esteem or self evaluations. For example, when self esteem diminishes consciously, perhaps because individuals are asked to reflect on their limitations, the name-letter effect becomes more pronounced (e.g., Brendl, Chattopadhyay, Pelham, & Carvallo, 2005).


In a typical study, participants are informed this task is intended to examine aesthetic judgments of simple characters-namely, letters of the alphabet. Participants are then required to indicate their personal preference for each letter by circling the appropriate number on a 9 point scale from not at all beautiful (1) to extremely beautiful (9), although the labels can vary across studies. Furthermore, participants are instructed to rely on their initial intuitive reactions towards each letter. These letters are arranged in a randomized order (see Bosson, Swann & Pennebaker, 2000).

This procedure generates two indices of implicit self esteem (Shimizu & Pelham, 2004). First, the extent to which their rating of their first initial exceeds the average rating of that letter is calculated (Shimizu & Pelham, 2004). The same procedure is applied to derive the index of implicit self esteem, expect the last initial of participants was used. Preferences towards the last rather than first initial, perhaps because surnames represent the family rather than individual, are assumed to reflect the level of collective self esteem (e.g., Hetts, Sakuma, & Pelham, 1999). Higher scores indicated elevated levels of implicit self esteem;& the procedure demonstrates test-retest reliability of 0.63 and acceptable internal reliability (Bosson, Swann & Pennebaker, 2000).

Scoring procedures

LeBel and Gawronski (2009) distinguished five different algorithms that can be applied to score the name letter effect. For example, researchers can:

The I algorithm seems to be the most effective. This algorithm did not general outliers or violations of normality-- as represented by skewness and kurtosis. Reliability was also stable and elevated (LeBel & Gawronski, 2009).

Complications: Agency versus communion

Sakellaropoulo and Baldwin (2006) distinguish between two similar measures of the name-letter effect. In particular, the extent to which individuals perceive their initials as more attractive than other letters is assumed to represent an implicit measure of agency-the degree to which they feel a sense of control, power, and superiority. In contrast, the extent to which individuals perceive their initials as more likeable than other letters is assumed to represent an implicit measure of communion-the degree to which they feel accepted. Consistent with this premise, Sakellaropoulo and Baldwin (2006) showed that aggressive and narcissistic individuals tend to perceive their own initials as more attractive, but less likeable, than are other letters. This tendency is especially pronounced if the individuals first recalled an instance in which they attempted to impress someone rather than felt accepted.

Determinants of the name-letter effect

Dijksterhuis (2004) undertook an intriguing study, showing that pairing the concept of I with positive words improves implicit self esteem, as measured by the name-letter effect. In this study, participants completed a lexical decision task. That is, they need to identify whether various items were legitimate words or not. For each trial, a row of Xs appeared on a computer screen for 500 ms. Next, either the letter I or X was flashed subliminally, for 17ms. Finally, either a positive word, such as nice or a random letter string, appeared.

Subsequently, individuals evaluated the various letters of the alphabet. Individuals were more inclined to like their own initials, indicating an increase in their implicit self esteem, if only the letter I instead of the letter X preceded the positive words. In other words, repeated associations between I and positive concepts seemed to improve implicit self esteem.

Other studies, such as research published by Schmeichel, Gailliot, Filardo, McGregor, Gitter, & Baumeister (2009), substantiate the proposition that associations between I and positive words improve implicit self esteem. Specifically, after individuals reflect upon their mortality, they usually become more defensive: they dismiss arguments that challenge their nation, for example. However, if their self esteem is elevated, individuals do not show this defensive response.

Interestingly, as Schmeichel, Gailliot, Filardo, McGregor, Gitter, and Baumeister (2009) showed, when the letter I is repeated associated with positive words, these defensive responses are not observed. This finding implies that associations between I and positive words seems to boost self esteem.

Practical implications

The initials of employees, customers, and other stakeholders should be considered in some decisions. For example, management could attempt to match employees and supervisors on their initials. Likewise, a job title could be refined to ensure the first letter matches the initials of its incumbent.


Bosson, J. K., Swann, W. B., & Pennebaker, J. W. (2000). Stalking the perfect measure of implicit self-esteem: The blind men and the elephant revisited? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 79, 631-643.

Brendl, C. M., Chattopadhyay, A., Pelham, B. W., & Carvallo, M. (2005). Name letter branding: Valence transfers when product specific needs are active. Journal of Consumer Research, 32, 405-415.

Dijksterhuis, A. (2004). I like myself but I don't know why: Enhancing implicit self-esteem by subliminal evaluative conditioning. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 86, 345-355.

Hetts, J. J., Sakuma, M., & Pelham, B. W. (1999). Two roads to positive regard: Implicit and explicit self-evaluation and culture. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 35, 512-559.

Jones, J. T., Pelham, B. W., Carvallo, M., & Mirenberg, M. C. (2004). How do I love thee? Let me count the Js: Implicit egotism and interpersonal attraction. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 87, 665-683.

Jones, J. T., Pelham, B. W., Mirenberg, M.C., & Hetts, J. J. (2002). Name-letter preferences are not merely mere exposure: Implicit egotism as self-regulation. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 38, 170-177.

Koole, S. L., Dijksterhuis, A., & van Knippenberg, A. (2001). What's in a name? Implicit self-esteem and the automatic self. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 80, 669-685.

LeBel, E. P., & Gawronski, B. (2009). How to find what's in a name: Scrutinizing the optimality of five scoring algorithms for the name-letter task. European Journal of Personality, 23, 85-106.

Nelson, L. D., & Simmons, J. P. (2007). Moniker maladies: When names sabotage success. Psychological Science, 18, 1106-1112.

Nuttin, J.M. (1987). Affective consequences of mere ownership: The name-letter effect in twelve European languages. European Journal of Social Psychology, 15, 381-402.

Pelham, B. W., Carvallo, M., DeHart, T., & Jones, J. T. (2003). Assessing the validity of implicit egotism: A reply to Gallucci (2003). Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 85, 800-807.

Pelham, B. W., Carvallo, M., & Jones, J. T. (2005). Implicit egotism. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 14, 106-110.

Pelham, B. W., Mirrenberg, M. C., & Jones, J. T. (2002). Why Susie sells seashells by the seashore: Implicit egotism and major life decisions. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 82, 469-487.

Sakellaropoulo, M., & Baldwin, M. W. (2006). The hidden sides of self esteem: Two dimensions of implicit self esteem and their relations to narcissistic reactions. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 43, 995-1001.

Shimizu, M., & Pelham, B. W. (2004). The unconscious cost of good fortune: Implicit and explicit self-esteem, positive life events, and health. Health Psychology, 23, 101-105.

Schmeichel, B. J., Gailliot, M. T., Filardo, E., McGregor, I., Gitter, S., & Baumeister, R. F. (2009). Terror management theory and self-esteem revisited: The roles of implicit and explicit self-esteem in mortality salience effects. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 96, p 1077-1087.

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Last Update: 5/27/2016