Zyzmor’s Revenge?

In the SuperFreakonomics section about various “birth effects,” we cited some research about the downside of having a surname that begins with a letter late in the alphabet:

It is common practice, especially among economists, to co-write academic papers and list the authors alphabetically by last name. What does this mean for an economist who happened to be born Albert Zyzmor instead of, say, Albert Aab? Two (real) economists addressed this question and found that, all else being equal, Dr. Aab would be more likely to gain tenure at a top university, become a fellow in the Econometric Society (hooray!), and even win the Nobel Prize.


Now there’s some evidence of an upside for those with late-letter last names. In a new Journal of Consumer Research paper called “The Last Name Effect,” researchers Kurt A. Carlson and Jacqueline M. Conard found that people with last names toward the end of the alphabet are faster at making buying decisions. Why? Kids with the A to I last names were always first in line, whereas kids with last names from R to Z got sidelined when quantities were limited, or just grew to hate waiting in line. The researchers found that those with R-Z last names will “jump the line” whenever possible in order to compensate for this learned disadvantage. The behavior seems to persist into adulthood: women who married and changed their names still reflected the response time of their maiden last name.

*See Liran Einav and Leeat Yariv, “What’s in a Surname? The Effects of Surname Initials on Academic Success,” Journal of Economic Perspectives 20, no. 1 (2006). “Indeed,” they conclude, “one of us [presumably Yariv] is currently contemplating dropping the first letter of her surname.” See also C. Mirjam van Praag and Bernard M.S. van Praag, “The Benefits of Being Economics Professor A (and not Z),” Institute for the Study of Labor discussion paper, March 2007.

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  1. Cackalacka says:

    Yep. Surname “S” here. We know what the back of the room/line looks like.

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  2. Bill Cole says:

    How much can I bet that this will be among the numerous “effects” which scholars publish papers about…and then turn out to be imaginary.

    Here’s a question: who’s more likely to get tenure, a junior professor who finds that there is a “Zyzmor Effect” or the junior professor who finds that there isn’t?

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  3. Ian Kemmish says:

    Presumably the control group for this experiment is all those schools, like mine, where children queue for portions in the order in which they arrived. Why does the paper not mention that control group?

    The proposed explanation seems highly implausible too. The first children to arrive will have a lot of children behind them, many portions to choose from, and a teacher telling them not to dawdle. They are under pressure to choose quickly. Those behind have fewer portions to choose from, fewer children jostling them, and a bored teacher. Less pressure, three ways. The last child presumably usually has no buying decision at all to make, unless somebody’s off sick.

    No, you’d expect children who were frequently near the FRONT of the queue to have got into the habit of making rapid buying decisions. Maybe children with late-letter surnames can run faster, and always get to the queue first?

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  4. Peter Orlowicz says:

    I disagree with Mr. Kemmish. The first few people in line will probably be given time to consider their choices (we just got here, there’s plenty of time to get everyone through the line, take your time and get what you really want) whereas the last people will be rushed (weren’t you thinking/deciding what you wanted while standing in line, we’re running late now, just hurry up and pick something).

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  5. Janice Herbrand says:

    I have a superbright great-grandson, of whom we expect great things, as soon as he learns to walk and talk. Are our hopes to be dashed because his last name is Ziegler?

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  6. Eric M. Jones says:

    If classroom seating is alphabetical, I’d bet there are statistically a skewed number of marriages due to the alphabetic effect. Z’s marrying Z’s???

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  7. GUIDO SULLAM says:

    When i was a student, I found that having a surname starting with S was an advantage. Why? Becouse I was interrogated after most of my class, so I had more time to study, and I could hear the questions asked. I womder if my success as student was due only to this factor!

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  8. Doc says:

    In my discipline the custom is to be alphabetical only if the authors don’t specify an order. When reading an article with a senior professor’s name first one can safely assume that the last named did all or most of the work.

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