Saturday, August 23, 2014

Middle initials are pretentious — but you should be using one anyway

John F. Kennedy, a beneficiary of the gravitas of a middle initial. Arnold Sachs/Archive Photos/Getty Images

The conventional wisdom says that using your middle initial on a regular basis is a pretentious affectation — especially in the digital era.

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, for instance, was told to use a "D." in his byline way back when he was a cub reporter at the Harvard Crimson. When he finally dropped it in January, he admitted that, "the internet age, the middle initial conveys a formality that is a bit of a barrier to our audience. It feels a bit ostentatious, even priggish."

It's hard to argue with this — part of the reason you'll find only one middle initial on Vox's staff. (It belongs to tech writer Timothy B. Lee, who's forced to distinguish himself from Timothy H. Lee, a think tank tech policy writer.)

But new research shows that for pragmatic reasons, we may want to rethink this mindset. A series of studies conducted by social psychologists Wijnand A. P. van Tilburg and Eric R. Igou show that when participants are asked to judge strangers they never meet in person, those with middle initials (to use the researchers' example, "David F. Clark") are perceived as smarter, more eloquent, and more qualified than those without ("David Clark.") And two initials, it turns out — "David F.P. Clark" — are even better than one.

Experiments show that middle initials make you seem smarter

The researchers conducted seven different studies in all. The sample sizes of each individual study were relatively small — in total, they had 526 participants, mostly European university students — but they consistently showed that the more middle initials someone had, the higher status they were accorded in intellectual endeavors. Many other cultures, such as China's, don't even traditionally have middle names, but in Western culture, at least, it seems that using an initial is a good idea.

This was true for a range of different scenarios. Participants picked people with middle initials to join their teams in academic competitions and they judged middle-initialed authors to be better writers. When asked simply to judge which names signaled status, participants said those with multiple initials ("David F.P.R. Mitchell," for instance) more often than those with one or none, and even more than those with infixes ("David van Mitchell").

But interestingly, it seems that the middle initials signaled gravitas only when the initialed person's identity and qualifications were a mystery. In one of the studies, participants judged a piece of academic writing to better written when it was by someone with a middle initial. But if the writer was already identified as a professor or undergrad, having an initial no longer made a difference — the professor's writing was judged to be better, and the undergrad's worse, initial or not.

Why is this the case? The researchers argue that it's basically due to association. We often see middle initials printed on things like diplomas and academic publications, so we subconsciously begin to associate them with intellectual achievement over time — and in situations where we're otherwise unable to make an informed decision, we interpret an initial as a shorthand for intelligence.

Update: in response to several queries, it's worth mentioning that the researchers did these tests for male and female names, with consistent results. The two names mentioned in this article were both male because they were the only two examples specified by the researchers in the paper.
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