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March 2011 - The Last Name Effect

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Imagine yourself in a store and you see a "special limited time offer" on a product you have been thinking about getting.

Do you jump on the deal? Or do you think about it critically? It turns out, whether you “jump” on the deal or not was decided long before you were born.

Kind of creepy, but true...

Would you believe that your last name has demonstrable influence on how you make decisions? I am not talking about your genes, how your parents raised you or anything like that. I am talking about the actual letters in your last name...

Actually just the FIRST letter in your last name.

In a new study, researchers from the Georgetown School of Business and The Massey Graduate School of Business at Belmont collaborated to discover what they are calling "The Last Name Effect".

What they found is that people with last names starting with letters late in the alphabet may be the fastest to buy an available item. Or if you go back to the first paragraph, you would be more likely to buy the iPad if your last name was Zimmerman rather than Aaronson.

Pretty strange, but there is a solid reason for this… Can you guess it?

Lines, Lines, Everywhere Lines

Turns out it starts in grade school, when our last names dictate where we stand in line, the order we are called upon, and sometimes the order in which we receive things.

As you can imagine, over time Zimmerman will not have the same choices as Aaronson. In the cafeteria, by the time Zimmerman gets his turn in line the pizza is all gone, and there is no more chocolate milk. This is simply the way things are for poor Zimmerman. He rarely gets first dibs at anything.

So, the argument is that this perpetual “back of the line” placement creates an unconscious scarcity mindset, causing people like Zimmerman to subconsciously act fast in the face of opportunity—with a sort of ”you better get it while you can” mentality. Others like Aaronson, not having faced the same shortages, won’t feel the same pressure to act on a deal.

Sounds kind of reasonable, but come on now! How can they prove this?

Some Really Cool Science

The researchers, Kurt Carlson and Jacqueline Conard, discovered this effect through four clever experiments.

Experiment one: MBA students were offered four free tickets, via email to a basketball game and were told the ticket numbers were limited. The average response time for people with last names beginning with R through Z, was 19.38 minutes, while those with last names starting A through I, responded in 25.08 minutes. This is statistically significant.

Experiment two: 280 adults around 39 years old were asked to fill out an online survey. In exchange, they were told they had a 1-in-500 chance of winning $500. Just like in experiment one, people with last names closer to the end of the alphabet responded faster to the offer.

Experiment three: At the end of a college wine-evaluation class, the teacher told the students they'd get $5 and a bottle of wine if they participated in a 45-minute study a few days later. Like the previous experiments, end of the alphabet students were more likely to accept the offer, and they did so faster than the others.

Experiment four: Undergraduate students were asked to imagine a scenario in which they needed a backpack and saw a bookstore sign offering one at 20% off "while supplies last." In this scenario, the students were told they did not have their wallets, and it would take 15 minutes to fetch it and return to buy the backpack. The end of the alphabet students were more likely to say that they'd run home and return to grab the deal.

One note in particular, on all the experiments, is it seems that only first letters R-Z really matters. The middle of the alphabet subjects responded similarly to early alphabet subjects. Also, results didn't differ by gender. And it’s important to note that the original last name counted, not a last name acquired through marriage--once a Zimmerman always a Zimmerman.

Cool stuff, and what it means is that “The Last Name Effect” is real. The researchers reasoning is not yet proven, but I think it’s a plausible explanation.

Another Brick in the Wall

Obviously this information is really useful to you if your last name starts with an “R” or later. Being aware of your unconscious bias towards jumping on a deal might help you avoid making some rash decisions!

However, the Last Name Effect is about so much more. It is an example of something completely below our awareness that is really driving the bus. Being a Hypnotherapist for the last 19 years, my whole world has been focused on all the fascinating things going on beneath the surface of our conscious mind.

Uncovering subconscious biases and finding ways to give people more conscious control over the choices around them is really what this is all about. The bottom line is the programs in your unconscious mind can either sabotage you or support you. What programs are running in your unconscious mind?

Kurt A. Carlson and Jacqueline M. Conard. “The Last Name Effect: How Last Name Influences Acquisition Timing.” Journal of Consumer Research: August 2011.

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