Do our initials shape important life choices?
ere is debunking at its best. A 2008 study claimed to demonstrate that people choose to work for companies that begin with the same letters as their names–way above what chance would predict. I, for example, might be unconsciously drawn to the company Harris Teeter or to Harvard University simply because of my preference for the letter H. The media were all over this story, just because it’s so bizarre. And there is actually some scientific theory to lend the idea plausibility: The familiarity heuristic (discussed at length in my book On Second Thought) is a well-documented cognitive bias that makes us choose the familiar and accessible over the unfamiliar; its feels safer, even though that’s illogical. But alas, this unbelievable fact turns out to be–unbelievable. University of Pennsylvania psychological scientist Uri Simonsohn didn’t buy the original claims, so he analyzed a large volume of political donation records, which include both names of donors and their workplaces. But, unlike the original study, he looked for matches with peoples’ initial and with the first three letters of their name–Her in my case, for example. When he analyzed the data this way, he found zero correlation between initials of people and their workplaces. He did find a match between the first three letters of names and workplaces but–duh–that’s because people start businesses and name them after themselves. In other words, it’s no surprise that Walt Disney worked for a company called Disney. This doesn’t mean the theory is invalid. The familiarity heuristic may well lead to a kind of “implicit egotism” that shapes minor and unimportant choices, Simonsohn says, but it’s highly unlikely to influence important life decisions in such a capricious way.
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