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-reviewed “The 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.
Thanks to reader Andrew Olewnik for alerting us to this topic.