Here is something Dale Carnegie didn’t mention in his self-help bestseller “How to Win Friends and Influence People”: having a name that is easy to pronounce appears to confer a subtle advantage. Apparently, it helps people gain promotions, ascend in politics, and make it big as lawyers, according to a study that analysed how the pronunciation of names influences impression formation and decision-making.

Lead author of the study, Dr Simon Laham from the University of Melbourne in Australia told the press last week that people are often not aware of subtle biases when they make decisions and choices. He and his colleagues write about their findings in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

The study builds on earlier work by co-author Dr Adam Alter, from the New York University Stern School of Business. In a previous study, Alter found that financial stocks with simpler names tend to perform better just after they appear on the stock market than similar stocks with more complex names.

For the new study, the researchers worked in lab settings and in a natural environment using names from Anglo, Asian, and Western and Eastern European backgrounds.

They found that the subtle effect of name is “not due merely to the length of a name or how foreign-sounding or unusual it is, but rather how easy it is to pronounce,” said Laham.

In particular they found that:

  • Candidates with more pronounceable names were more likely to be be favoured for job promotion and political office.
  • In a mock ballot, political candidates whose names were easier to pronounce were more likely to win than counterparts whose names were not so easy to say.
  • Attorneys with easy to pronounce names ascended more quickly to senior positions in their firms.

Alter carried out the law firm analysis, which involved investigating 500 first and last names of US laywers. He said the effect is probably at work in other industries as well, and in many day to day contexts:

“People simply aren’t aware of the subtle impact that names can have on their judgments,” said Alter.

The authors write that:

“This work demonstrates the potency of processing fluency in the information rich context of impression formation.”

Laham said the study, thought to be the first of its kind, is significant because it suggests there is subtle bias and discrimination at work in our society, and that it’s important to realize how it shapes our choices and judgement of others:

“Such an appreciation may help us de-bias our thinking, leading to fairer, more objective treatment of others,” he urged.

Written by Catharine Paddock PhD