Feature

Did Bill Clinton marry Hillary because their names sound the same? No, it couldn't be. Or could it?

Researchers at the University at Buffalo of the State University of New York, tipped off by research that's shown people have positive associations with places and things named with the same letters as those in their own names, found archival and experimental evidence that people also tend to gravitate to other people who have common initials and name sounds.

These attractions may occur because the symbols trigger positive self-associations that make people feel comfortable and happy, says psychologist John T. Jones, PhD, of the United States Military Academy, who headed the research. According to his article, "How Do I Love Thee? Let Me Count the Js," published in APA's Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (Vol. 87, No. 5), this "implicit egotism" might even influence people's choices of romantic partners.

To investigate this possibility, Jones and his colleagues, including psychologist Brett W. Pelham, PhD, a Buffalo associate professor who supervised the work, looked at archival information on names to determine if there was more than a chance likelihood that people with similar initials marry.

"This work was based on the principles of classical conditioning," Pelham says. "If I have positive associations about myself, then I'm going to have positive associations about things that I associate with myself."

The researchers started with marriage records from several counties in Georgia and Florida that stretched back to the 1800s, Jones says. They compared the proportion of couples whose surname initials--the man's last name and the woman's maiden name--matched with the proportion of couples whose surname initials should match if people paired up randomly. In Georgia they found that about 15 percent more of the names matched than would have matched by chance, and in Florida they found a 25 percent difference.

In three other archival studies--done nationally and regionally from samples both contemporary and dating to the 1800s and designed to eliminate alternative explanations like ethnic matching by looking at results within Caucasian and Hispanic groups separately--the researchers found the same effect.

"The amazing thing is that the effect is robust," Jones says. "This effect is very counterintuitive; it might even seem absurd to some people. But in study after study we found the same thing."

To add causal conclusions to the research, the researchers set up lab experiments, including one in which male undergraduates read a woman's relatively inert personal ad, which included her first name and the first three letters of her last name. Half the subjects saw ads where the first letters of the last name matched their own, and half saw ads with a name that did not match.

The researchers found the name-matching increased attraction only when the men had been asked to write about a personal flaw before the testing. The writing exercise created a "self-concept threat," Jones says, which he theorizes made the men more likely to seek comfort in a person whose name is similar to their own. An additional lab experiment confirmed the effect of threat.

"Especially when they're under threat, which in the real world could manifest as stress or adversity, people may gravitate toward these self-relevant symbols," Jones says. "We're wondering if there's an adaptive advantage in gravitating to self-referential symbols when under threat. We think there's something about these symbols that makes people feel more secure, and in times of stress, we figure that could make a difference on personal outcomes. I hope to be able to dig out those mechanisms in future research."

Another research direction is to see if the effect holds in different cultures, some of which may be less individualistic than others, Pelham notes.

"The research identifies an unconscious influence on some very important decisions," says Pelham. "And the combination of the archival and laboratory studies suggest that this is a pretty pervasive phenomenon. It's going to be interesting to look at all the other ramifications of this sort of decision-making."