The Quickest Way To Sound Smart? Use Your Middle Initial

One little letter can bestow instant status and smarts.

The Quickest Way To Sound Smart? Use Your Middle Initial
[Image: Teacher via Shutterstock]

An old boss once asked employees to guess his middle name based on his middle initial. After maybe a minute of guessing we gave up, in part having exhausted our collective cache of names beginning with that letter, and in part because he started laughing. The initial didn’t stand for anything; he’d made it up. His parents never gave him a middle name, but all his peers in academia had an initial, so he’d chosen a letter more or less at random to fill this perceived professional gap.


Research confirms what my boss instinctively knew: a middle initial tends to be associated with intellectual status. Think of it as a sort of intellectual tattoo. A recent series of experiments document this “middle initials effect” for the first time. In seven separate tests, fictional names with middle initials increased perceptions of social status and intellectual capacity than those without one. Forgive us if we suspect some personal motivation on the part of the psychologists who conducted the research: Wijnand A. P. van Tilburg of the University of Southampton, in the United Kingdom, and Eric R. Igou University of Limerick, in Ireland.

As an initial test, Van Tilburg and Igou issued 85 research participants a brief, non-technical passage about the theory of relativity. (A sample line: “experiments and observations show that Einstein’s description accounts for several effects that are unexplained by Newton’s law, such as minute anomalies in the orbits of Mercury and other planets.”) Afterward participants rated the passage for writing quality on a scale of 1 to 7.

Now for the twist: the supposed “author” of the passage varied for different test participants. Some read a passage written by David Clark. Others by David F. Clark. Still others by David F. P. Clark. And a fourth group by David F. P. R. Clark.

Participants took the bait. They rated the passage by David F. Clark as significantly better written than the one from plain old David Clark. The effect didn’t quite hold for two initials but reemerged for three. On the whole, the addition of one letter and one dot was enough to change perception of a physics passage.


Subsequent experiments revealed additional support for this middle initials effect. In one test, participants preferred to join an intellectual competition with teammates who had more middle initials, but that wasn’t true when the event was an athletic one. In another, the effect held true with female names, with participants perceiving Elaine Sandford to have a lower status and intellectual capacity than other Elaines with middle initials. Additional personal details negated the effect. In one test, David F. P. R. Mitchell received a better evaluation than David Mitchell, until both were identified as a “professor”–a title strong enough to override the names.

“In sum, the studies demonstrate the existence of the proposed middle initials effect,” Van Tilburg and Igou conclude in an upcoming issue of the European Journal of Social Psychology. “We found that higher perceived status, expected and perceived intellectual capacity, and performance were attributed to people with middle initials compared with people without middle initials.”

So adding middle initials may be a quick way to raise your intellectual profile. But beware a few caveats. First and foremost, the effect captures perceived wisdom, not actual intellect. George W. Bush used an initial; Albert Einstein didn’t. And trying to game the system won’t work for long; in one of the tests, people with middle initials were rated lower than those without, once all were identified as “first-year students.” That brings up a cultural caution: in some situations, using any middle initial (let alone three) might just as soon draw sneers as mark status.

If you do invent a middle initial to enhance your status, be sure it doesn’t form a negative word with the initials from your first and last name. Several years ago, a group of psychologists discovered that people whose three initials formed a positive word (such as A.C.E. or W.I.N.) lived measurably longer than those whose initials formed a negative one (such as B.A.D. or U.G.H.). The difference was about four and a half years of life for men and a little more than three for women–perhaps because our names infect our attitudes over time. Here’s the full list:

You’ll note that those who lived longest had the initials L.O.V. Guess that really is all you need.

About the author

Eric Jaffe is an editor at CityLab, where he writes about transportation, history, and behavioral science, among other topics, through the lens of urban life. He's also the author of The King's Best Highway (2010) and A Curious Madness (2014).