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Weiner’s Wiener? Too perfect to be a coincidence.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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In case you haven’t heard, Carlos Danger — AKA shamed former New York Congressman Anthony Weiner — recently got in trouble once again for exposing his infamous…well, his infamous wiener.

Everyone’s had fun ragging on Weiner for his online gaffes. Two years ago, Weiner accidentally exposed a meant-to-be-privately-sent picture of his privates to the entire Twitter community. And more recently, as Weiner has been attempting to restart his political career with a campaign to be New York’s next mayor, reports emerged that Weiner had continued sending sexually explicit images and text messages to women on the Internet under the charming pseudonym Carlos Danger, even after being publicly disgraced for his lascivious behavior in 2011. Plenty of stories have noted his last name, a funny coincidence given the nature of his indiscretions. But is it really just a fluke that Weiner would be the one showing off his wiener?

There’s a psychological phenomenon known as implicit egotism, which maintains that people often make decisions (like where they live, what they do for a living, or even whom they marry) based on the fact that we have an extra dose of favoritism towards things that have to do with our own selves — such as our names. Theoretically, our frequent contact with the letters in our name (writing our names on exams in school, giving our names out to new acquaintances, signing our names on restaurant tabs) make these letters more fluent. Fluency increases liking — generally, the more you are exposed to something (like a song, a piece of artwork, or a next door neighbor), the more you eventually grow to like it, because it becomes more familiar and easy to process. Therefore, the letters in our names — which we see more often than almost anything else — should make us feel particularly good. Which makes us want to lean towards decisions that mirror our own names, because they “feel” better than other, more disfluent options.

Sheer naming narcissism? Or simply an implicit fondness for the letter "K"?

As an example, there are more Mildreds than Virginias in Milwaukee, though it’s the other way around in Virginia Beach. Same goes for Jacks and Philips in Jacksonville and Philadelphia – and all of these effects hold even after controlling for alternative explanations like age or ethnicity.

Of course, not all researchers are convinced that implicit egotism is all that legitimate. There have been several prominent refutations of implicit egotism, most notably revolving around the criticism that any findings are likely due to statistical artifacts and/or confounds.1 For example, some researchers (like Uri Simonsohn) argue that it’s simply more likely that people who live in Virginia Beach will name their daughters Virginia. Likewise, stats showing that people tend to work for companies that start with the same letters of their own names might be misleading if they are overly influenced by people who happen to work at eponymous or family businesses (e.g., Disney family members working at Disney) or by ethnic differences (e.g., Van Boven might be more likely to work at a company called Van Dyke Associates simply because he lives in a Dutch speaking country where many surnames and company names start with the common prefix “Van.”)

However, there are some implicit egotism effects that can’t be explained quite so easily. For example, the same effects hold true for last names; people whose last names start with Cali-, Texa-, Flori-, Illi-, Penny-, Ohi-, Michi-, and Georgi- are more likely to live in the respective states that start with those letter strings, and the same effect holds true for Canadians whose last names start with Tor-, Vanc-, Ott-, Edm-, Cal-, Win-, Ham-, or Lon- living in Toronto, Vancouver, Ottawa, Edmonton, Calgary, Winnipeg, Hamilton, or London. Georgias/Georges, Louises/Louises, and Virginias/Virgils are more likely to live in Georgia, Louisiana, or Virginia, respectively – and more likely to make an effort to move there if they don’t live there initially. Implicit egotism is not limited to residential choices, either; people with Den names (like Dennis or Denise) are more likely to become dentists, and those with La names (like Lauren or Larry) are more likely to become lawyers.

So where does this leave us with Anthony Weiner? Well, if the effects of implicit egotism are to be believed… what can we guess he would show an “implicit preference” for exposing?

We all want to blame Anthony Weiner for his bad-boy behavior, but maybe we should go ahead and blame his last name.

And if all else fails, at least we can now safely claim that he certainly has a fondness for Danger.


1. To provide a balanced perspective on the debate surrounding implicit egotism, the first two articles linked below support the existence of this effect, and the last two articles cited below are critiques. You can also read a great Daily Pennsylvanian article explaining the criticisms of implicit egotism linked here, and another article providing both perspectives on implicit egotism at Time.


ResearchBlogging.org

Pelham, B.W., Mirenberg, M.C., & Jones, J.T. (2002). Why Susie sells seashells by the seashore: Implicit egotism and major life decisions. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 82, 469-487. PMID: 11999918

Jones, J., Pelham, B., Carvallo, M., & Mirenberg, M. (2004). How do I love thee? Let me count the Js: Implicit egotism and interpersonal attraction. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 87, 665-683. DOI: 10.1037/0022-3514.87.5.665

Gallucci, M. (2003). I Sell Seashells by the Seashore and My Name Is Jack: Comment on Pelham, Mirenberg, and Jones (2002). Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 85 (5), 789-799 DOI: 10.1037/0022-3514.85.5.789

Simonsohn U (2011). Spurious? Name similarity effects (implicit egotism) in marriage, job, and moving decisions. Journal of personality and social psychology PMID: 21299311

Image Credits:

Image of Anthony Weiner from the Talk Radio News Service; available via Flickr.

A slightly different version of this post was first published at my original PsySociety WordPress blog in June 2011. You can read the original post by clicking the From The Archives icon on the left.

Melanie Tannenbaum About the Author: Melanie Tannenbaum is a doctoral candidate in social psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she received an M.A. in social psychology in 2011. Her research focuses on the science of persuasion & motivation regarding political, health-related, and environmental behavior. You can add her on Twitter or visit her personal webpage. Follow on Twitter @melanietbaum.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. rkipling 4:51 pm 07/30/2013

    laugh short snicker

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  2. 2. rshoff 7:25 pm 07/30/2013

    Okay, “implicit egotism” sounds very reasonable and it resonates. But I’m not so sure about familiarity or fluency explicitly increasing the likeableness of things. For example, there are several songs that I’m very ‘fluent’ in which I cannot stand. There are some fluencies that breed discontent. Perhaps you could say that ‘fluency’ determines the intensity of feeling, but not necessarily feeling which way. Good or bad.

    Another thought that comes to mind is not the fluency of Weiner, with his name Wiener, but the fluency of ‘weiner’ to other people, who then expect Weiner to perform. And you know guys and their egos. Once invited it’s hard to resist! Multiply that over a lifetime and you’ve got a guy encouraged to do just that.

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  3. 3. Londa Boadicea 11:14 pm 07/30/2013

    This nonsense has absolutely nothing to do with science and does not belong in a publication that purports to be about science. Scientific American has pissed away its credibility and has become a sad farce. May as well be TMZ or the Daily Worker.

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  4. 4. Melanie Tannenbaum in reply to Melanie Tannenbaum 11:52 pm 07/30/2013

    Oh no!!! Oh my goodness, you are so right. My blog is definitely responsible for defiling the credibility of one of the most respected scientific outlets in the world. I need to hide in shame and refuse to accept my PhD. How will I ever even be able to look in the mirror again?! I wrote about peer reviewed academic research and dared to call it science?! I am disgusting. Just, disgusting.

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  5. 5. anamanea 12:35 am 07/31/2013

    Don’t pay attention to people who have not enough patience to go beyond their stereotype of what is serious causal factors and what isnt
    This article is both funny and absolutely brilliant.
    The phenomenon you describe might have been accentuated by the fact weiner might have been bullied for his name, and made to cling to what it represents and vehiculates even more tightly in a defensive manner, or as a mental defense, I don’t know.

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  6. 6. anamanea 12:44 am 07/31/2013

    It is a strange but fascinating phenomenon how when people are brought in a mess, and see it coming, instead of protecting themselves from it they seek it for themselves.
    Charlotter Bronte and many other authors point out to the human reaction of the ‘victim’ that gets in trouble and because he fears trouble wants paradoxically to sabotage himself and push it further : ‘I
    was conscious that a moment’s mutiny had already rendered me liable
    to strange penalties, and, like any other rebel slave, I felt
    resolved, in my desperation, to go all lengths.’ (jane eyre)
    This is a strange human reaction, and for weiner the feeling of being in trouble might very possibly have started like a fatality or vague shame he saw attached to himself by his name, and that he could not help call further on himself by some strange but extremely fascinating psychological phenomenon.
    I thing people who continue to procrastinate because they use to procrastinate and are ashamed of it!, often people who lack self confidence, also fall under such a similar phenomenon.

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  7. 7. rkipling 12:47 am 07/31/2013

    I hope ol’ Carlos doesn’t read your post @4. He might like that bad doctoral candidate routine and be unable to keep from sending you pictures.

    Guess it’s sackcloth for you? Wait! Hold those ashes! I’ll bet you did all that disgusting defiling just to trick us into learning some psychology stuff.

    Gasp! I think you just got called a communist? (I had to look up the Daily Worker just to be sure.)

    Londa,
    I think someone is channeling Emily Litella.

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  8. 8. Melanie Tannenbaum in reply to Melanie Tannenbaum 12:17 pm 07/31/2013

    Hi rshoff,

    For what it’s worth, I am actually combining two streams of research in this explanation. Implicit egotism does not necessarily have to be about fluency/mere exposure. However, there is also research on fluency/mere exposure, showing that people *do* prefer stimuli that they are exposed to multiple times. For example, if someone is shown random Chinese ideograms multiple times (and they do not speak or understand Chinese), they “like” the ones they see multiple times more. Also, people tend to like those they see frequently more than those they see infrequently.

    However, you are correct that this comes with a catch. Mere exposure is based on the assumption that our “default” state is mild positive affect. As a result, seeing someone over and over (or hearing a song over and over) should intensify that positive feeling. But, if you start off with mild NEGATIVE affect, mere exposure works the other way. The more you see that person (or hear that song), the more you will dislike him (or her or it).

    Very interesting thoughts! Glad you liked the post.
    - Melanie

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  9. 9. rshoff 2:15 pm 07/31/2013

    @Londa – from a purely empirical perspective, perhaps you have a point. But this is a blog on the S.A. site where discussions can take place. Sometimes we’re confused or confusing, misinterpreted or misinterpret, get a little defensive or sensitive, or completely taken out of context, but there is almost always a seed of perspective and insight in the comments if you look.

    I also appreciate reading the articles and reading the comments. What a luxury. Can you imagine how difficult it was to access this level of information 50 years ago? Much less be able to participate in a discussion?! And I enjoy the fact that S.A. does not cater to academia. These articles are accessible to people like me and help us all understand many aspects of science. Or would you prefer we watch a rerun of the Simpsons, again, while we are not taking care of your laundry.

    And I understand that there are a lot of highly educated detail oriented people out there who would prefer to stick to the physical sciences. S.A. caters to them as well. Those articles are just a link away. It’s challenging for me to read those and truly follow, but hey, I’m not their target audience either.

    In other words, there something for everyone at S.A. and we can use it as an opportunity to feed our curiosity and stretch our limitations by clicking through the cornucopia of links.

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  10. 10. EyesWideOpen 4:46 pm 07/31/2013

    Alright, Ms. Tannenbaum, let’s clarify what you’re implying here. If Mr. Weiner changes his last name to Cheney, he will be less tempted to tweet his weiner to interested parties (unless he mistakenly sends it out to all Twitter fans)? I mean, Cheney has never tweeted his cheney to anybody, not even W, which raises a troubling question. Since W in Wilson could also be W for Weiner, is it possible that Bush will ever tweet his W, or will that remain between himself and Laura? You know, it gets complicated doesn’t it. ;-)

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  11. 11. rkipling 6:21 pm 07/31/2013

    rshoff,

    All you say may be true about what influences personality development. And of course I have no idea about the sample of guys who have informed your opinion. As a person of the male persuasion, I can say that not all guys are driven solely by their egos. Many people, not just guys, manage their conduct using higher brain functions in spite of childhood and early adult experiences. Wiener’s personal history, whatever it may have been, doesn’t excuse the stupidity of his conduct. He needs help.

    From reading your comments here and on other blogs, I believe you are overly modest regarding your ability to understand scientific content on the S.A. site. Those like the future Dr. Tannenbaum, who wish to share knowledge, make science interesting and easy to understand for those interested in learning. Whatever your formal education, it might be a Ph.D. in English for all I know, the structure, content, and logic shown in your writing indicates high intelligence to me. It’s difficult to always tell whether to take a comment at face value or if it was constructed to work on more than one level. So, I’m not quite sure how to take your comment about “people like me”. Based on your writing, I say the world needs more people like you. That doesn’t necessarily mean I would agree with all your opinions, but unlike many commenters a discussion with you would have value.

    I found Londa’s comment a bit stuffy and condescending too. My recommendation is that people reread their prospective posts a couple of time before submitting them. It’s likely Londa would have toned down her comment on reflection unless, of course, it was intended as humor.

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  12. 12. rshoff 8:49 pm 07/31/2013

    rkipling, your compliment is undeserved. In fact, I am moved by it. And for the record, I have no higher education and try to be very honest in my comments. My perspective is based on what I’ve learned about life and what I’ve learned about science. I try to be vigilant against my own bias and cringe when I read some of my more reactive comments that are defensive and ignorant. I have come to believe that intelligent educated people are forgiving when they run across ignorance. Thank you for being one of those kind people.

    I recognize your name too. Not sure if we agree (my memory is not that good) but your name is one that I can trust to be informed and valuable.

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  13. 13. rkipling 12:46 am 08/1/2013

    rshoff,

    I call it like I see it. You are educated however your education came about. Some fair amount of wisdom was also acquired along the way. Too few have that.

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  14. 14. rkipling 12:48 am 08/1/2013

    Hummm? Both of our user names begin with “r”. Hummmm?

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  15. 15. rshoff 11:06 am 08/1/2013

    “R”, Ironic. Melanie?

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  16. 16. Melanie Tannenbaum in reply to Melanie Tannenbaum 11:47 am 08/1/2013

    This entire exchange is absolutely adorable. We have a little PsySociety community growing over here! :)

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  17. 17. rkipling 3:43 pm 08/1/2013

    You mean like :o 3

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  18. 18. rkipling 3:45 pm 08/1/2013

    That was supposed to be puppy dog eyes. That doesn’t seem to work here.

    Link to this

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