William M. Briggs

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William M. Briggs Sez: Keep That Impressive Middle Initial

initials

You can take it from William M. Briggs, and also from the Today show: sporting a middle initial is a mark of sophistication, intelligence, and rugged manliness—or womanliness, as the case may be.

So say Wijnand A. P. van Tilburg and Eric R. Igou in their peer-reviewedThe impact of middle names: Middle name initials enhance evaluations of intellectual performance” in the European Journal of Social Psychology.

Face it. You’re awfully impressed with me, mainly because I display, proudly and prominently, that central “M.” I always knew its importance, but it’s nice to have research to back it up. Class-A research, too, because as the authors themselves humbly admit, “the results of these studies yield important implication for everyday life.” And who isn’t interested in everyday life?

You’ll agree that we must “conceptually distinguish perceived status from perceived intellectual performance.” So not one, but two—indeed, later we learn that the number is seven—full experiments are needed. Perceived status “reflects a general evaluation of respect and admiration by others” and intellectual performance “relates to more specific domains, such as writing ability or academic knowledge in particular.” Or the acme: writing blog posts about academic knowledge.

Experiment 1: 64 women and 21 men, all students (who else?) read an extract “written” by (a) David Clark, (b) David F. Clark, (c) David F.P. Clark, or (d) David F.P.R. Clark. “The author’s name was subtly displayed above the text.” Students had to rate the well-writtenedness (yes, well-writtenedness) of the piece on a scale of 1 to 7.

Lo. A wee p-value “revealed significant differences between the middle initials conditions”. Why, the authors even discovered a cubic trend in the increase in well-writtenedness between no and three middle initials. Answer to the question in your head: It isn’t over-fitting if it passes peer review. In the authors own words,

This cubic trend represents an imperfection that can be specifically attributed to the condition with two middle initials, which did not differ significantly from the condition with no middle initials. Following this analysis, we conclude that the middle initials effect is overall reliable but that its robustness needs to be investigated further. In addition, it appears that the middle initials effect does not simply increase in a linear fashion as a function of the amount of middle initials, and it seems that one middle initial is sufficient to produce the middle initials effect.

You can’t say fairer than that, so it’s on to Experiment 6, which saw our authors recruit visitors to their website (again, mostly women) and asked to pick a none- through three-initialed person to join an imaginary Quiz Team and another to join an imaginary Sports Group. The participants were asked to rate the names, with and without initials, according to “high perceived status, great intellectual capacity, and great athletic capacity.”

Here’s where it got tricky. For each participant, the authors “computed the summed amount of initials of the selected members for both the intellectual quiz and sports competition teams.” Just like you, dear reader, sum the initials of your friends as a measure of personal status.

As the authors theorized, “participants chose members with more initials to perform in their intellectual quiz team…compared with their sports competition team”. But the p-value just squeaked by at 0.04. Whew! For a moment, I was worried there wasn’t enough evidence.

Study weaknesses? Turns out “the selection of our names is typically beyond our personal control”. Also, “the decision of parents of whether or not to include middle names may have consequences for the individual.” Mom and dad (are we still allowed to say that?) pick out those initials!

What about the sad souls who innately recognize the importance of initials, but screw it up? More research is clearly needed. Calling myself “W. Matthew Briggs” doesn’t, I think, bring the same caché, but there are no wee p-values to support this. Somebody get me a grant. It’s Science!

Addendum Speaking of Science, there is still time to email the Scientific Ethicist with your personal questions.

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Thanks to reader Andrew Olewnik for alerting us to this topic.

13 Comments

  1. Bruce Foutch

    13 May 2014 at 8:55 am

    Just think of the research possibilities…
    Sr.
    Jr.
    II
    III
    Names that begin with a vowel
    Names that begin with a consonant

  2. Fred C. Dobbs

    13 May 2014 at 9:58 am

    I agree as well.

  3. I’m more impressed with leading initials. It seems to work with writers, anyway.

    J.R.R. Tolkien
    F. Scott Fitzgerald
    D. Keith Mano
    E.A. Housman
    T.S. Eliot
    e e cummings

  4. Briggs

    13 May 2014 at 10:32 am

    Gary,

    This is anecdotal evidence not collected under the guidance of a trained professional in a university setting. It therefore does not count.

  5. Two initials didn’t differ significantly from zero initials….So, it is important to have an odd number of initials.

  6. Mine is “A”. However when pronounced “uh” it’s no so impressive.

    I actually have TWO middle initials. So there!

  7. Briggs, I am a trained professional who has worked in a university setting for 35 years. Your argument is invalid.

  8. Brandon Gates

    13 May 2014 at 4:54 pm

    Brandon R. Gates thinks his middle initial is impressive, and likes using it, especially in third person. And on that, I’d better stop before I say something inappropriate for a family blog. ;)

    Cheers.

  9. Bruce Foutch

    13 May 2014 at 7:50 pm

    Gary,
    I’ll see your leading initials and raise you with:
    hyphenated last names
    hyphenated first names
    ;-)

  10. (Let’s not mention: Socrates, Plato, Aristotle…) Before ‘peer’ review, names referred to writers of works that were significant. Since, citation has become the ‘statistic’ that matters most.
    (Plato and Aristotle are still in the running… :)!)
    For some reason, significant has become a non-significant marker lately. (Yes, dear Briggs, your fellows have connived in this atrocity…) The simple and overriding meaning of the term used to be ‘important and consequential’. In our modern scientific understanding it has become ‘correlated to’ — the numerical measure of which is contingent upon the gullibility of the reader.

    I choose to remain ‘Don Jackson’, here… I’m known differently elsewhere. But didn’t Billy Shakespeare say (…it was in Romeo and Juliet, I believe; a bad omen!) I likely “would smell as sweet” regardless?

  11. Hmm. Perhaps a metric could be developed based on the historical rankings of US Presidents?

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Historical_rankings_of_Presidents_of_the_United_States

    Warren G. Harding is at the bottom of the list, but Franklin D. Roosevelt is at the top. I fully expect that a model with a wee p value can be found to explain this.

  12. Ah, to impress my students, I shall put the two extra middle initials in my name on the syllabus!

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