BOULDER, Colo. — Could your last name play a role in how well you perform in school — and your overall success in life? According to a study, people whose last initial is among the beginning letters of the alphabet are more likely to see greater achievements, especially in school.
Conversely, those who always have to wait the longest to raise their hand during roll call are subject to more negative effects, according to researchers from the University of Colorado Boulder.
“If your name is at the end of the alphabet, you’re less likely to be identified by teachers as an outstanding student,” says economics professor and co-author of the study, Jeffrey Zax, in a university release.
The team of researchers, led by Zax and graduate student Alexander Cauley, looked at data from a Wisconsin-based longitudinal study of 3,281 males. The participants were monitored and surveyed periodically from the time they graduated high school in 1957 through 2011. Researchers paid particular attention to how well the men performed in school and the level of success they saw in their adult lives.
Results show that those whose last names fell earlier in the alphabet were notably more likely to be viewed in a more positive light by their teachers. To keep the playing field as level as possible, the team only compared participants who had similar IQs and similar grades. “Even though they were the same in every other way, the fellow with the initial at the front of the alphabet was substantially more likely to be designated informally by teachers as an outstanding student,” says Zax.
‘Alphabetism’ continues impacting success in adulthood
Researchers determined that a 10-letter gap holds a weight of about 10% when it comes to the drop in odds of favorability by a teacher. So a student whose last name was “Morris” was about 10% less likely to be viewed as “outstanding” by a teacher than a classmate whose last name was “Brown.”
The effect, dubbed “alphabetism,” seemed to effect the success of participants mostly in their earlier years, including adulthood, and fizzle later on in life.
“The good piece of news is that the effects that we saw seem to dissipate by the 30s,” says Zax. “We saw them very strongly at the end of high school and through college and in the first labor market experiences. They were gone by the age of 35 and they remained absent at 52.”
Zax credits the drop-off to more realistic grading systems: a person’s general ability eventually carries more weight than an initial.
Of course, it may be no surprise that a person whose last name begins with “Z” might be the author of such a study. Being a teacher himself, he admits he’s called roll for his students in reverse the last 15 years.
“That’s my little personal blow against alphabetic injustice,” he says.
The full research paper by Zax and Cauley can be read here.
This article was first published on March 20, 2017.