24 Learning: I'm procrastinating here

24 Learning

Saturday, July 07, 2007

I'm procrastinating here

I'm supposed to be completing an assignment but avoiding it with lots of web browsing and video watching. Here are a couple of fun things I've come across that are worth sharing. For a year or two now I have been getting a weekly science email from CSIRO

This contains all sorts of interesting stuff. This week's email has two completely unrelated items that caught my eye. The first was a fascinating article about the statistical relevance of success related to the first letter of your surname.

News: The surname study
by Richard Wiseman (touring Australia for National Science Week)

Easy as a, b, c: can your name really affect your life? As contrived - or cruel - as the names Brooklyn, Romeo and Cruz might be, the happiness of the Beckham boys could be salvaged by their surname. Not, as you might think, because it's a famous name; if their father had been called David Wickham things could have been quite different.

More than 15 000 people have taken part in a unique experiment to explore whether your surname influences your life. The results yielded a fascinating insight into an up until now hidden aspect of the human psyche. I wanted to know if people who had a surname that began with a letter near the start of the alphabet were more successful in life than those with names towards the end. In short, are the Abbots and Adams of the world likely to do better than the Youngs and the Yorks?

Past research gave me good reason to think so. Last year, American economists Liran Einav and Leeat Yariv analysed the surnames of economics' academics working at US universities. They found those with initials early in the alphabet were more likely to be in the best-rated departments, achieve other measures of ‘success' or even win a Nobel Prize.

Publishing their findings in The Journal of Economic Perspectives, they argued such "alphabetical discrimination" was probably due to the convention of listing authors of academic journal papers in alphabetical order, resulting in professors with surnames towards the start of the alphabet appearing to be more prominent in their field than their alphabetically challenged peers.

I wondered whether the same effect might apply outside the world of economics. After all, whether it is on a school register, at a job interview, or in the exam hall, people with surnames towards the start of the alphabet are used to being first.

Given that we often associate the top of a list with winners and the bottom with losers, could all of these small experiences add up and make a long-term impact on someone's life?

Everyone participating in the Surname experiment was asked to indicate their sex, age, surname and rate how successful they had been in various aspects of their life, such as their health, finances, career, and "life in general". Scores in all these categories were added up to obtain an overall "measure of success".

The results revealed that readers whose surnames began with letters at the beginning of the alphabet did indeed rate themselves as significantly more successful overall than those with surnames starting with lowly, end-of-the-alphabet initials.

The surname effect was especially pronounced when it came to career, suggesting alphabetical discrimination was alive and well in the workplace. Interestingly, the effect was also more visible in men than in women. This may, of course, reflect the fact that many women change their surname when they marry. Perhaps women who are considering whether to adopt their husband's surname should take into account the alphabetical implications - or choose a real Alpha-male in the first place.
What might account for this seemingly strange effect? One pattern in the data provided an important clue.

The surname effect became more pronounced in older age groups, suggesting it was not due to childhood experiences, but rather it built up gradually during our lives. It seems that constant exposure to being at the top or bottom of the alphabet league - the A-list or the Z-list - slowly makes an impact on the way in which people see themselves.

So should these results give those whose surname initial falls towards the end of the alphabet cause for concern? Well, as a Wiseman, and therefore someone with a lifetime's experience of coming towards the bottom of alphabetical lists, I take some comfort from the fact that the effect is very small. Then again, when you look at some of the best-known people around today – Crowe, Blair, Bush, Branson - it does make me wonder.

As a Wilkinson this concerns me. :) I wonder should I start taking the register in the morning starting from the bottom of the page? Fascinating. I might get my class to explore this issue. The possibilities for statistical analysis based on children's passions is boundless. Get them to explore the surnames of All Blacks, Pop Stars, Movie Stars, Olympic Champions etc whatever they are into.

The second thing that has distracted me from my assignment (apart from blogging) is a series of high speed videos.


Blogger Rachel Boyd said...

Hmmm... this is a very interesting article you have found; and I can certainly vouch for this "alphabet discrimination".

Having previously been a "Shirley" I was pretty much used to being listed much later. As the last year and a half being a "Boyd" I am certainly noticing the perks! I often am first (if not within the first few names) on lists, for example I have no problems finding my name when registering at conferences and I am listed more prominantly than ever before whenever an alphabetised list is produced (for whatever), I also often have a much reduced waiting time.

I have for some time now each day read the class roll in variant ways each day (I try to alternate starting from the top, and then starting from the bottom; and now I have a researched reason for doing so!.... but what will become of those "in the middle" surnamed students (!) they will always have approx the same time to wait :)

Enjoy your holidays, Rachel

1:50 pm  

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