You surely know why you chose your town, your partner, and your vocation—all for good reasons, no doubt.
But might other unknown reasons—operating below the level of your conscious awareness–also have nudged your choices? Such is the implication of some clever studies of implicit egotism—an automatic tendency to like things we associate with ourselves. For example, we like better a politician or stranger whose face has been morphed with some features of our own (see here and here).
I see you yawning: “You needed research to know that we love ourselves and things that resemble us?” The surprise—astonishment, really—comes with the subtle ways in which this phenomenon has been documented. Consider:
- The name–letter effect. People of varied nationalities, languages, and ages prefer the letters that appear in their own name. People also tend to marry someone whose first or last name resembles our own.
- The birthdate–number effect. People likewise prefer the numbers that appear in their birthdate. For example, people tend to be attracted to people whose laboratory participant number resembles their birth date.
- The name–residence effect. Philadelphia, having many more people than Jacksonville, has also had (no surprise) 2.2 times more men named Jack . . . but also 10.4 times more named Philip. Ditto Virginia Beach, which has a disproportionate number of women named Virginia, and St. Louis which, compared to the national average, has 49 percent more men named Louis. Likewise, folks named Park, Hill, Beach, Rock, or Lake are disproportionately likely to live in cities (for example, Park City) that include their names.
If that last finding—offered by implicit egotism researchers Brett Pelham, Matthew Mirenberg, and John Jones—doesn’t surprise you, consider an even weirder phenomenon they uncovered: People seem to gravitate to careers identified with their names. In the United States, Dennis, Jerry, and Walter have been equally popular names. But dentists have twice as often been named Dennis as Jerry or Walter, and 2.5 times more often named Denise than the equally popular Beverly or Tammy. Among geoscientists (geologists, geophysicists, and geochemists) people named George and Geoffrey are similarly overrepresented.
The phenomenon extends to surname–occupation matching. In 1940 U.S. Census data, people named Baker, Barber, Butcher, and Butler were all 40 percent more likely than expected to work in occupations with their names.
Ah, but do Pelham and colleagues have cause-and-effect reversed? For example, aren’t towns often named after people whose descendants stick around? And are people in Virginia more likely to name girls with the state name? Are Georgians more likely to christen their babies Georgia or George? Wasn’t the long-ago village baker—thus so-named—likely to have descendants carrying on the ancestral work?
Likely so, grants Pelham. But could that, he asks, explain why states have an excess of people sharing a last-name similarity? California, for example, has an excess of people whose names begin with Cali (as in Califano). Moreover, he reports, people are more likely to move to states and cities with name resemblances—Virginia to Virginia, for example.
If the Pelham team is right to think that implicit egotism, though modest, is nonetheless a real unconscious influence on our preferences, might that explain why, with long-ago job offers from three states, I felt drawn to Michigan? And why it was Suzie who sold seashells by the seashore?