What’s in a last name? Lots, studies say

If your childhood last name was Zamora or Zimmerman, you are probably a lot quicker to buy something as an adult than if your name was Abbott or Allen.


You were emotionally scarred for life in elementary school.

That’s just one of the many fascinating findings from the halls of academia, which nowadays is researching why consumers behave the way they do instead of assuming they always act in their own best interest. Turns out, we often make illogical decisions with our money based far more on emotion than math and critical thinking.

Here are a couple of recent findings to be published in the Journal of Consumer Research that might provide insight, allowing you to spend smarter.

In elementary school, students are often organized alphabetically by surname, whether sitting in the classroom or queuing to go to the bathroom. As a result, the same kids are always first and front or last and back. That seemingly innocuous routine has enduring effects as those children become adult consumers, found researchers Kurt Carlson of Georgetown University and Jacqueline Conard of Belmont University.

“We were shocked at the strength of the effect,” Conard said.

Those with names late in the alphabet apparently become frustrated and traumatized with always waiting till last and choosing whatever is left over. As adults, free from the tyrannical alphabet system, they overcompensate, jumping at a chance to go early. They will act quickly on buying opportunities and potentially overspend. Conversely, those with names early in the alphabet are accustomed to getting what they want. They are slow to react to limited-time opportunities. They count on abundance and getting their turn.

The last-name effect is a continuum, researchers found. So a Rodriguez will buy quicker than a Garcia. Those with last names in the middle of the alphabet make purchases with middling speed.

The effect is especially interesting for women, who often change last names when they marry. Researchers found the effect only applies to a woman’s childhood last name and not to married names.

The lesson for consumers?

Simply be aware the effect might exist for you, especially now in an era of limited-time buying opportunities, like online deal-of-the-day offers.

“Any time you can better understand yourself and the factors that affect behavior, you can override them,” Conard said.

Those with late-alphabet childhood names should take an extra pause with buying decisions when pressed for time.

Meanwhile, those with early alphabet names should be more “on the ball” to take advantage of limited-time opportunities, she said.

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