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

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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.

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

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