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ABCs of the Queue

Where a name appears in the alphabet may help explain how someone responds to waiting.
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Why do certain things bother you but not others? Like getting in line: When you have to, do you snap and snarl or do you queue up casually with no complaints?

Why is that? Kurt Carlson knows.

A professor of marketing at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business, Carlson and his researchers regularly turn up all sorts of interesting and often surprising information on how and why we make decisions.

Take getting in line. “Why," he asks, “do people stand in line for so long at Georgetown Cupcake?” referring to a hugely popular sweets shop in Washington, D.C. “And why do some standees complain while others are unbothered?” His research suggests “it depends on where your last name falls in the alphabet.

“People whose last name appears early in the alphabet think standing in line is silly because they were privileged to be at the front of lines as children.

Those with last names toward the end of the alphabet — who were forced to the end of lines as children — act more quickly to secure a good spot in a line and are content to wait in line to preserve their spot.”

Carlson and his research team asked a group of “mid-alphabet” people to imagine they were going into a witness protection program and were given the choice of taking new names early or late alphabet. “They chose early,” he says.

And the women in the group also answered affirmatively when asked if, given the chance and all other things being equal, they’d choose husbands with “early alphabet surnames.” Their reasoning, they told Carlson, was their belief that women who marry men with early alphabet names would be “better off.”

Carlson’s research team even found a candidate for public office whose platform was “End the tyranny of last names.” (Asked if the candidate had won, Carlson answers, “Of course not.”)

Another example cited in the same study involved students who’d enrolled in a wine evaluation course. They were told that if they took part in a 30-minute study, they’d be given a $5 bottle of wine. The researchers predicted that students with later alphabet names would respond more quickly to the offer. They were right. The same was noted when graduate students were offered a chance for free tickets to a college hoops game or were seeking their first academic job.

“The existence of the last name effect for these students,” wrote Carlson and his co-author, Vanderbilt's Jacqueline M. Conard, “begs the question of whether the last name effect will exist for older adults in situations where there is a clear pressure to respond quickly.”

In 2007, when a similar study — “What’s in a Surname?” which included the concept of “alphabetical discrimination” — came to the attention of British journalist Richard Wiseman, he conducted his own experiment by polling his Daily Telegraph readership. To his astonishment, 15,000 people responded online.

“I wanted to know if people who had a surname that began with a letter near the start of the alphabet were more successful in life than those with names towards the end. In short, are the Abbots and Adams of the world likely to do better than the Youngs and the Yorks?”

The columnist found that people whose surnames began with letters at the beginning of the alphabet did, in fact, “…rate themselves as significantly more successful overall than those with surnames starting with lowly, end-of-the-alphabet initials. The surname effect was especially pronounced when it came to career, suggesting that alphabetical discrimination was alive and well in the workplace.

“So should these results give those whose surname initial falls towards the end of the alphabet cause for concern? Well, as a Wiseman, and therefore someone with a lifetime's experience of coming towards the bottom of alphabetical lists, I take some comfort from the fact that the effect is very small. Then again, when you look at some of the best-known people around today —Blair, Brown, Bush, Cameron, Branson — it does make me wonder.”

So might, say, a professor of marketing in possession of such knowledge advise manufacturers (or any seller) on its potential?

The possibility does not interest Georgetown’s Carlson, who neither welcomes nor seeks outside consulting work.

“I take care to avoid telling people how to run their lives, and I take care to avoid telling marketers how to run their departments. I simply provide the knowledge and leave it up to them to decide how to use it.”

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