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.


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

Bill Cole

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?

Ian Kemmish

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?


Peter Orlowicz

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).

Janice Herbrand

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?

Eric M. Jones

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???


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!


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.


If teachers seat alphabetically they should do this front-to-back, not side-to-side, so that from class to class/year to year the students are more randomly arranged alphabetically (i.e., someone whose name starts with S could still be in the front row).


I don't think I ever made a buying decision as a child or experienced, or even saw, a waiting line arranged alphabetically.

Jay Omega T

For some reason, I'm reminded of Isaac Asimov's story "Spell my name with an 'S'"

In this case, changing the Z to an S was a moderate improvement (one small step, perhaps) in Z/Sebatinsky's life, but a vast disaster was averted for the entire planet...

Timothy Edwards

For a while I was thinking about adopting my mother's surname (Taylor) because there are no men on her side of the family to carry on the bloodline. However, I guess I'll be sticking to Edwards then! Sorry grampa!

Wicked eye-opener :)

Sean Apple

This post reminded me of the feud Paul McCartney and Yoko Ono were in a few years ago about the song-listing order of the Lennon-McCartney catalog. McCartney, on songs he wrote largely on his own ("Yesterday", for example), wanted to switch the order to McCartney-Lennon. This almost started a legal battle between he and Ono before McCartney relented.

What's fascinating to me is, here is a household name the world over nervous about his place in the annals of popular music. The bad press it received left McCartney looking greedy in spite of his reasonable assertion of primary authorship on certain songs. So he quickly switched his position and said the way it was is the way it will always be: "Lennon-McCartney". That's the brand.


What does a compilation of the data look like?

You said that the learned disadvantage leads to line cutting etc... And Women who change there name still exhibit these traits.

Do Women who change from a Late Surname, to an Early Surname, have more or less chance of becoming tenured (etc.) than their natural early surname cohorts?


R here. Got screwed on height too since the short kids went in front.


Another reason to be glad the man at Ellis Island couldn't spell Zylbersztejn and ended up moving my family several tiers higher in the alphabet.


Actually, if Einav and Yariv grew up in Israel, as it seems they did, Yariv is first alphabetically in Hebrew.


Am I the only one who thought this was about those NYC subway ads for acne treatments?


This really made me laugh. I grew up with an "S" surname and got used to waiting around a while when we did stuff in alphabetical order (and wondering why, once in a while, we couldn't do it in reverse alphabetical order). I have been married for almost 10 years, and did change my name, to an "L" surname, and have been quite enjoying the shorter wait times in these situations. But I will say that these situations are fewer and further between now that I'm not in school anymore.

That said, I've grown into an adult who hates waiting - it really blows my schedule. I keep a very tight, rigid schedule and my time is very valuable to me so I just hate to wait around doing nothing. Maybe it's from all those years waiting around for A-R.