How does your partner call you? How about your mom and dad? Do they call you the same in all situations? Do people call you differently at work? What names does the public administration uses to refer to you? The answer is of course, a clear and resounding no. You are likely to be ‘Honey’ do you partner, William or Bill to your parents, Mr. Johnson at work, and Mr. William Davis Johnson to the government.

Do we know and appreciate the impact these different ways of referring to us have on our behaviour? My guess is that we pay this little to no attention; it would be impractical to say the least. At the same time, the impact of our names on our decisions and actions can be considerable. Studies have shown that

“Individuals identify strongly with their names and prefer when objects share the same letters as their names (Brendl, Chattopadhyay, Pelham, & Carvallo, 2005; Garner, 2005; Nuttin, 1985). Additionally, childhood associations that individuals have with their names can affect their decisions as adults. Carlson and Conard (2011) found that adults with last names that begin with letters later in the alphabet were more likely to purchase under time constraints and thus found limited time offers more attractive.”

https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/jcpy.1153

These are just glimpses of how our own names impact us and we still have much more to learn. To fill this gap, a recent study published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology went on to investigate how being reminded of our middle names impacts our behaviour, and more specifically, our consumption behaviour. Turns out, it does and in does it in a very significant way – read on.

Photo by Caleb Woods on Unsplash

Recall something for me please. In which situations did your parents use your middle name to refer to you? I’m willing to bet that these involved mischiefs on your end, anger on theirs, and a heated discussion. And this would be a safe bet to get into, considering that in one of the studies the authors reported, in the US “Over 70% of respondents indicated that their parents used their middle names when (a) their parents were angry (vs. happy or neutral) and (b) when they had done something bad (vs. good or neutral)” In a word, a very sizeable share of parents use their children’s middle name for disciplinary purposes.

As this pattern (middle name used by parent = the child had done something bad) repeats and repeats and repeats, we grasp a correlation – when our middle name is used we must have done something bad. As neuroscientists like to say, what wires together fires together, and in time we ‘learn’ to associate our middle names with feelings of guilt*. Now, guilt is clearly not a positive emotion; it is perhaps one of the most corrosive ones. It’s only natural that we try to alleviate it, and this has significant impact on how do we spend our money.

To begin with, our willingneess to purchase products we see as hedonic decreases when we exprience guilt. Hence, when we are reminded of our middle names, our intention to buy these products is lower, compared to when we are not. For example, in one of the studies the authors introduced a “fun pair of headphones” and asked people if they would be willing to buy them. Importantly, some people got the question in the format of “Mr. Willian Davies Johnson, please answer a few questions…”, while others just saw “Please answer some questions”. The results: when they saw their family name, participants were about 20% less likely to buy the headphones.

Photo by Malte Wingen on Unsplash

Interestingly enough, this effect disappears when the product is not a hedonic, but a utilitarian one. In another study, participants who were shown their first-last name only rated the hedonic product higher than the utilitarian one. That is what one would expect of course. The thing is, when participants were shown their middle name as well, they rated both products equally – their preference for indulgence vanished in an instant.

Perhaps most crucially, being reminded of our middle names makes us engage in more virtuous behaviour, such as donating to charity. The difference between being shown our first and last name vs first, middle and last name – close to 20% points uplift in people donating to charity.

In this remarkable example of the impact of words on our actions we saw how even seemingly innocent words, such as our middle names, can lead to major changes in our behaviour. Our desire to indulge decreases, as well as our appreciation of hedonic products; importantly though, we become more likely to donate to charity.

My best wishes for a great day ahread and remember – everything communicates, everything impacts.


Key takeaways:

  • We associate our middle names with feelings of guilt *
  • Because guilt is a negative emotion, we try to alleviate it.
  • One of the ways to alleviate guilt in consumption contexts is to refrain from purchasing hedonic items (luxurious or one for which we have no immediate need).
  • Another way to cope with guilt is to do good – by donating to charity for example.

Implications:

  • If you are selling hedonic products do not use clients’ and prospects’ middle names to refer to them. This will make them less likely to purchase your products.
  • If you are engraving a gift for example you are better off not using the middle name of the recepient
  • If you are fundraising for a charity using potential donors middle names can help you – middle names invoke feelings of guilt and we try to do good to alleviate it.
  • If you are trying to make people engage if more virtuous behaviour (like making healthier food choices), go for the middle name.
  • If you don’t want your children to associate their middle names with feelings of guilt, do not use them when they do somethign you don’t appreciate.

* There are important cultural differences on this point – this practice of using a child’s first-middle-last name for reprimanding them is apparantly popular in the US, but not in India for example.

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