Monday, January 24, 2011

Last Names and Academics, Part III

Two years ago I posted an observation I'd had in my classroom; that students with last names near the end of the alphabet tend to do worse in my class. I gave a handful of reasons, not that seemed to really satisfy. Then last year I tried to explain it again, with just as much success. Well, perhaps the third time's a charm:
People waiting in line for days for the latest must-have product are probably a bunch of Zimmermans, Youngs, and, yes, Wilkinses, according to a truly bizarre new study. It's apparently all the fault of elementary school teachers overusing alphabetical order.

This is one of those studies that seems way too ridiculous to be true, but let's at least consider the facts. Researchers tracked consumer patterns in a variety of situations. They consistently found that people whose last names came later in the alphabet tended to buy items far more quickly than those earlier in the alphabet, and the effect got stronger and stronger the later a person's name appeared in the alphabet.

Intriguingly, for married women, the name that mattered was their maiden name, suggesting that the underlying cause for this is created earlier in life. The researchers speculate that the use of alphabetical order during people's childhoods creates a sense in later alphabet kids that, if they want to be first in line for something, they're going to have to make it happen themselves. That explains the later tendency for impulsive consumption, according to the researchers:
The idea holds that children develop time-dependent responses based on the treatment they receive. In an effort to account for these inequities, children late in the alphabet will move quickly when last name isn't a factor; they will 'buy early.' Likewise, those with last names early in the alphabet will be so accustomed to being first that that individual opportunities to make a purchase won't matter very much; they will 'buy late.'"
Now, obviously people's surnames aren't the only determinant of their shopping patterns, and this only speaks to an overall trend in consumption habits. This is the sort of genuinely weird discovery that, while it certainly shouldn't be just dismissed, does need a lot more evidence before it's something we buy into. After all, my last name Wilkins is right at the end of the alphabet, and I remember being at the end of lots of lines back in my school days, and my shopping habits are completely norm...ooh, a sale on backpacks! Gotta go!
If it makes you less patient, and patience is extremely important for life success, perhaps this minor detail can have a big impact.

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