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					1/29/2011                                                     Print




 Tyranny of the Alphabet
 A new study explores how your last name influences how fast you buy stuff.

                                                                 herd in a good way. My Slate colleague
   By Timothy Noah
                                                                 and friend of 30 years, Emily Yoffe, has
                                                                 always been among the easiest people to
   Posted Friday, Jan. 28, 2011, at 6:16 PM
                                                                 find in what was, at various stages of my
   ET
                                                                 life, my address book, my Rolodex, my
                                                                 Palm Pilot, my PDA, and my bouquet of
   My surname falls almost precisely in the
                                                                 Apple devices (iTouch, iPhone, iPad). No
   middle of the alphabet, N being the 14th
                                                                 matter what the platform, the way to
   of 26 letters. That may explain my
                                                                 find Emily was always the same: Go right
   previous indifference to the societal
                                                                 to the end! Family members, by
   implications of alphabetization. Or
                                                                 comparison, could be found only by
   perhaps I should say alphabetism,
                                                                 stumbling around the middle, tempting
   defined as discrimination against people
                                                                 me more than once not to send them
   whose last names fall near the end of the
                                                                 Christmas cards. But Emily set me
   alphabet. We're talking about you, David
                                                                 straight, confiding, for instance, that
   Vitter, Reese Witherspoon, Carl Y
                                                                 applause at her nephew Zachary Yoffe's
   astrzemski, and Fareed Zakaria (though
                                                                 graduation from the Naval Academy "was
   it doesn't seem to have held any of them
                                                                 considerably less than for the kid whose
   back). According to a new study in the
                                                                 last name was Anderson." She directed
   Journal of Consumer Research
                                                                 me to this survey in the Telegraph of
   (registration required) by Kurt A. Carlson,
                                                                 London, in which readers with surnames
   assistant professor at Georgetown's
                                                                 at the start of the alphabet rated
   McDonough School of Business, and
   Jacqueline M. Conard, assistant professor
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   at Belmont University's Massey Graduate
   School of Business, the farther back in
   the alphabet the first letter of your
   surname falls, the quicker you're likely to
   chase some enticing new consumer offer.
   This response is rooted in childhood
   trauma.

   To the extent I ever thought about this
   issue at all, I was inclined to believe that
   having your name at the end of the
   alphabet set you apart from the common



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   Tyranny of the Alphabet
                                                               departments to the top 35. (And it
   themselves more successful than readers
                                                               disappears entirely when applied to their
   with surnames at the end. Even in my
                                                               own academic careers. Five years after
   address-book competition, Emily's
                                                               they published their alphabetization
   advantage from being at the end is
                                                               study, Einav labors at Stanford as a mere
   bested by that of my friend of 35 years,
                                                               associate professor of economics, while
   David Atkins, who resides at the
                                                               Yariv has become a full professor at
   beginning.
                                                               CalTech!) But Einav and Yariv's findings
                                                               were robust enough to prompt political
   Less obviously anecdotal research
                                                               scientists, who today collaborate more on
   methods yield the same result. A 2006
                                                               academic papers than they did in years
   study by Liran Einav, an assistant
                                                               past, to begin debating whether they
   professor of economics at Stanford, and
                                                               should stop alphabetizing authorship.
   Leeat Yariv, an associate professor of
                                                               Alphabetical ordering of political
   economics at CalTech, found that faculty
                                                               candidates on ballots has long been
   members "with earlier surname initials
                                                               observed to confer a significant
   are significantly more likely to receive
                                                               advantage to the name that comes first,
   tenure at top ten economics
                                                               and in 2004 a man named Tom Zych
   departments" in the United States and,
                                                               made "the tyranny of alphabetical order"
   "to a lesser extent, are more likely to
                                                               a central issue in his write-in campaign
   receive the Clark Medal and the Nobel
                                                               for president. "I spent many years in the
   Prize." A likely reason is that academic
                                                               back right hand corner of classrooms,"
   papers by economists typically list the
                                                               Zych said, "at the ends of lines."
   authors' names alphabetically. For
   comparison's sake, Einav and Yariv (or
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   should I say Yariv and Einav?) looked at
   top psychology departments and found
   no such correlation; psychology papers,
   like papers in the medical and "hard"
   sciences, do not typically rank authors
   alphabetically, but instead rank them
   according to who did the most work,
   which does seem more logical. Even for
   economists, the correlation Einav and
   Yariv posited was not perfect. It
   diminished when they expanded their
   survey from the top ten economics



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   Tyranny of the Alphabet
                                                               needs a new backpack, so unless he's on
   Carlson and Conard break new ground by
                                                               his way to an exam or a first date with
   measuring not the immediate but rather
                                                               his future wife or a job interview with
   the long-term effect of having a surname
                                                               Goldman Sachs—and none of these are in
   at the alphabet's end, and how that, in
                                                               the hypothetical—he'd be foolish to pass
   turn, affects buying patterns. Their
                                                               up the discount.
   working hypothesis is that "[R]epeated
   delays imposed on children whose last
                                                               We leave, then, for another day whether
   names are late in the alphabet create in
                                                               the childhood suffering entailed in
   those individuals a chronic expediency
                                                               having a name at the end of the alphabet
   motive that is automatically activated"
                                                               makes you a stronger person better
   by limited-time offers to buy stuff. In
                                                               equipped to navigate a complex
   effect, Carlson and Conard believe the R-
                                                               marketplace or a weaker person easily
   to-Z set will prove easier prey for "act
                                                               manipulated into acquiring stuff you
   now!" marketing pitches than the A-to-I
                                                               don't need or even particularly want.
   set.
                                                               Deep down, Carlson and Conard (who
                                                               both rank high the A-I cohort) probably
   Carlson and Conard tested their thesis
                                                               don't care. Their audience (apart from
   four ways.
                                                               fellow academics) is marketing
                                                               professionals, to whom the only relevant
   Carlson and Conard concede at the
                                                               question is: Will targeting the R-Zs be
   study's end that they can't really say
                                                               more profitable? The answer, it seems, is
   whether the R-Zs' quicker response to
                                                               "Yes."
   act-now-type marketing makes them
   smart shoppers or suckers. In the first
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   and third experiments, it seems to me a t
   oss-up as to whether the responders are
   acting on sincere priorities or merely
   demonstrating suggestibility as they
   rearrange plans to seize free basketball
   tickets and bottles of wine. The second
   and fourth experiments seem clearer
   cases of what economists call
   "maximizing utility." I don't know
   anyone who couldn't use an extra $500;
   do you? And the hypothetical about the
   backpack assumes that the student really



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   Tyranny of the Alphabet

   Timothy Noah is a senior writer at Slate




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