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I.M. Smart: Middle Initials Signal Intelligence

• April 30, 2014 • 4:00 AM

(Photo: lynea/Shutterstock)

A first-of-its-kind study finds we associate middle initials with intellectual heft.

Want to be thought of as an intelligent, erudite, high-status individual? New research suggests a remarkably simple way to project such an image: Use your middle initial.

Better yet, use two or three, if your parents gifted you with multiple middle names.

“People’s middle initials have a particular and powerful effect on how people are perceived by others,” argue psychologists Wijnand A.P. Van Tilburg of the University of Southampton and Eric R. Igou of the University of Limerick.

“The display of middle initials increases the perceived social status of these people, and positively biases inferences about their intellectual capacity and performance,” they write in the European Journal of Social Psychology.

When you receive a letter from a doctor, lawyer, or other high-status professional, he or she probably signed it using a middle initial. Read enough such notes, and an association is made in your mind.

On the off chance that their combined three middle initials aren’t sufficient to convince readers of their conclusions, Van Tilburg and Igou describe seven studies that provide evidence for their thesis.

The first featured 85 students from the University of Limerick, who were asked to read a short article describing Einstein’s theory of general relativity, and evaluate how well it was written. The author of the text was presented as David Clark, David F. Clark, David F.P. Clark, or David F.P.R. Clark.

The results: “David F. Clark” received higher marks than “David Clark,” with “David F.P.R. Clark” scoring even higher. “It seems that one middle initial is sufficient to produce the middle initials effect,” the researchers write.

Follow-up studies with other groups of University of Limerick students confirmed this bias and strongly suggested it was linked to the perceived status of the writer. One found participants were more eager to join a team if many of its members had middle initials—but only if the competition involved intellectual pursuits (a quiz about literature, science, art, and history) rather than athletic ones.

That result was duplicated in a similar study featuring 92 people recruited online, and another featuring 76 students from a Western European university.

Why do people infer smarts and status from the simple presence of a middle initial? Tilburg and Igou offer several possible explanations, including the fact that names are often presented formally in “intellectual domains.”

They point out that, when you receive a letter from a doctor, lawyer, or other high-status professional, he or she probably signed it using a middle initial. Read enough such notes, and an association is made in your mind.

In addition, it’s possible that “social groups with habits of giving their children more middle names have overall more resources available for education,” they write. (See Bush, George H.W.) To misquote F. Scott Fitzgerald, the rich are different than you and me—they give their kids longer names.

So, parents-to-be, if there’s a chance your children will go into academia, or any other field in which perceived intellectual heft will give them a leg up, do them a favor at birth: Don’t stint on the middle names. You can’t guarantee them success in life, but you can take provide them with an initial push.

Thomas A. Jacobs
Staff writer Thomas A. Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

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