intelligence

Want to seem smart? Add a middle initial to your name

May 2, 2014 at 4:03 PM ET

FAMILY TIES -- Pictured: Michael J. Fox as Alex P. Keaton -- Photo by: NBCU Photo Bank .
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Alex P. Keaton and Michael J. Fox were on to something -- middle initials make people think you're smarter, a new study suggests.

Thinking of finding a new job or applying to grad school? You might want to add a middle initial to your name.

Wijnand A. P. van Tilburg (there’s a name with authority) and Eric R. Igou of the universities of Limerick in Ireland, and Southampton in the United Kingdom, respectively, reported in the European Journal of Social Psychology that when it comes to perceptions of one’s intellectual heft, initials give a boost.

In a set of experiments with more than 500 participants, people rated writing by "David F. Clark" as better than the exact same text written by “David Clark.” Even better? “David F.P.R. Clark."

Use of at least one middle initial set up a bias in the brains of the participants — the authors speculate that because middle initials often appear in formal contexts, such as on diplomas, seeing the initial gave the impression of higher status. This extra status then influenced the perception of the person’s writing and knowledge.

Names and initials are important. Psychologists studying what’s called the “name-letter effect” have shown that our initials can help determine what products we buy, even what careers we are more likely to choose, mainly because we develop an affinity for our own initials. This affinity is transferred to products, people and places that share similar initials.

Last year, for example, a team from the University of Wisconsin School of Business showed that when people in a group shared initials, they had higher work quality.

A famous but controversial 1999 study from psychologists at the University of California San Diego found that people whose initials spelled out “negative” words like D.I.E. and P.I.G. died at younger ages than those whose initials spelled out “positive” words like V.I.P.

Other research has raised serious questions about the validity of the statistical analysis used in that study, but I can identify. My schoolmates realized that my initials spelled “B.R.A.” just as we reached peak junior high taunting age. And though I do not have an abnormal interest in bras, I did write a sex column, and books about sex.

That’s led to some trouble for the other journalist named Brian Alexander, who gets emails intended for me “and not the kind of letters you want to get in the office, especially when you’re new at the job” he told me with a laugh. Also, I am not the @BrianAlexander on Twitter, a guy who has tweeted twice and not since 2008. (I mean, come on, man, if you’re going to hog the name, use it!) His squatting on @BrianAlexander has forced other Brian Alexanders – of which there are a disconcerting number – to use various devices to distinguish ourselves. I use @BrianRAlexander because Robert is my middle name.

Thanks to the new research, I can feel more distinguished. Still, if you’re sending sex-related stuff to Brian Alexander, Brian M. at Microsoft would appreciate it if you’d send it to Brian R.       

Brian Alexander is a frequent contributor to NBC News and a co-author of “The Chemistry Between Us: Love, Sex, and the Science of Attraction.”

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