Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Alphabetical Behavior

You've spent your life adjusting to where you stood in the alphabet of life. For instance, my maiden name is Beales. It's now Clark. When I graduated high school, then college, I didn't have to wait long for my name to be called. When you look for info on any database, it's usually in alpha order. Now there's a study by Kurt Carlson entitled Temporal Response to Opportunities: A Look at the Last Name Effect, that avows that a lot of our behavior is affiliated to the first letter of our last name.

For instance, take lines. Concert tickets, airline seats, free Chik-fila- for-life opportunities at the opening of a new store, half off X-boxes at a Best Buy. Chances are, per this study, those in the last half of the alphabet are more likely to gather early, comprising the front of the line. They've spent their lives having to wait for their last name to be called in alphabetical order. When they have a chance to defy that, they jump on it.

Same goes for making announcements. The study also looked at who was more likely to announce their success, for instance, landing a job. Those in the latter part of the alphabet were quicker to speak up, post their success. Basically, those used to being toward the end, jump on the chance to be first.

But what about those at the beginning of the alphabet? That same study found that those in the first half of the alphabet actually seemed to have become more successful, hinting at the possibility of "alphabet discrimination" in the workplace. When people were told they would be put in witness protection, and they could choose a name, they wanted one at the beginning of the alphabet.

In South Carolina's last US Senatorial election, a no-name man named Alvin Greene paid his $10,000 entry fee and earned his name on the Democratic primary ballot. Alphabetically his name was first. He won over much more qualified candidates. The man had no experience, was unemployed, lived with parents, and struggled speaking in complete sentences. The state endured quite the embarrassment when national news outlets pointed out the illogical result. In the end, he lost the election. Maybe due to his transparent qualifications, maybe due to the fact his Republican adversary was named Demint.

What does this have to do with writing? Think about it. How many award competitions, book seller websites, or even conference faculty lists post names alphabetically? How many readers tire of reading alphabetical options and stop before reaching J, K, L or M, much less R, S, T or W? That means you might have to try a little harder to grasp attention. Of course, this is just one man's opinion, with a few exercises thrown in to support his theory. However, this can only support my theory that you have to self-market hard just to be heard.

With all the competition out there for reading material, don't bank on the fact your name might start with A, B, or C, because those X, Y, Z guys are pumping their writing like crazy to beat the odds. And don't think you've got your bases covered as an R, S, T girl because you threw your name everywhere already,  because those A, B, C folks are still at the top of any alphabetical list.

Bottom line, take nothing for granted, self-promote, and fight to be heard. Of course, you could always have a name at the end of the alphabet and choose a pen name or business title at the front of the alphabet. Then you've defied all the odds. :)


Mary Ingmire said...

The study results are intriguing. I might check it out for myself the next time I see a line formed.

Annette Lyon said...

Interesting--and, sometimes, painfully true. I find that when anyone who links to my blog by my name, I'm on top and get noticed (that A beginning my name helps!) but if they link it by blog name, THE puts me way down on the list. (Wish I had thought of that when naming my blog.)

One great example of this is hugely successful fantasy and sci-fi writer David Wolverton, who got a review after one of his first books came out that told reader to try him out even though they'll have to reach to the bottom shelf to find him. He realized then that his last name might be a liability--and is now better known by his pen name David FARLAND.

Paul Callaghan said...

Very interesting. We have a problem in New Zealand with under-achievement by people of Maori descent. Many Maori names begin with 'T' or 'W' I wonder if there's a connection.