Credit: Jesse Bering

A former colleague of mine—whose name shall not be spoken, neither for joy nor strategy—was so transparently boastful of his tissue-thin associations with “famous psychologists” that I found him, well, rather unlikable as a result of it. Not only did he name-drop at every possible opportunity, but just in case you missed the reference to So-and-So popping up in the conversation about, say, lactose intolerance or Frisbee golf, his office was also visually booby-trapped to produce the same effect. Like some groupie at a rock concert, he’d capitalized on the many photo-ops at various academic conferences so that these grinning photos showed him with his arms draped around a virtual Who’s Who of accommodating (and usually slightly befuddled, or at least mildly inebriated) star scientists.

Why is it that we find “name-dropping” and related behaviors so unappealing in others? Similar to many other social behaviors, the phenomenon of name-dropping is one of those human foibles that is so routine and commonplace that scientists have almost completely overlooked it as a potentially fruitful topic of investigation. An exception to this was a study published earlier this year in the journal Social Influence. In this study, University of Zurich psychologists Carmen Lebherz, Klaus Jonas and Barbara Tomljenovic conducted a controlled experiment in which participants were introduced to a stranger who name-dropped to various degrees. The volunteers were then asked to rate this stranger on several key dimensions.

First, however, Lebherz and her colleagues “operationally defined” the central construct of name-dropping, because simply mentioning a respected person’s name doesn’t necessarily make you a “name-dropper.” If your cousin happens to be a famous actress, or your English professor won a Pulitzer, there might well be instances where it’s considered appropriate to mention his or her name, especially if someone asks you about the connection. Thus, the authors declare that:

We understand name-dropping in our study as an unprompted association with another individual or group; that is, the self-presenter volunteers his/her association to a positive other [Editor’s note: a “positive other” is someone held in especially high esteem by other ingroup members] as opposed to being asked about his/her association by somebody else.

Because the study took place in Zurich, the experimenters decided to use the name of a well-liked national figure, and Roger Federer fit the bill perfectly. The authors write:

In Switzerland, the Swiss tennis star is a revered national hero, adored for both his undisputed confidence and unpretentious demeanor. We expected that an ordinary student’s strong association with such an idol would be perceived as such an obvious attempt to impress, would be discounted as manipulative, and thus would cause less liking of the name-dropping individual.

The participants in the name-dropping experiment were 141 students from the University of Zurich. Each was misled to believe that they would later be participating with a partner—a complete stranger—as part of a study on sports behavior. For now, though, they were to simply exchange a few introductory pleasantries through email. (In actuality, of course, there was no other person on email, just the experimenter sending the participant a pre-scripted message). The students were randomly assigned to one of four “name-dropping conditions” in which the fictitious same-sex partner either: (1) didn’t mention Federer at all; (2) mentioned he (or she) was a fan of Federer; (3) claimed to be a personal friend of Federer, or; (4) claimed to be both Federer’s personal friend and workout buddy. Thus, all participants would have read the following email from their new study partner, “Michael”:

Hello ______,

I’ve signed onto that study in which we have to email and introduce ourselves before participating in the sports study. I’m Michael, I’m 24, I share an apartment in Zurich with some former schoolmates and I have just started studying Psychology. So far I like it quite well. I also work part time at the airport, I push wheelchairs and take kids to their flights, stuff like that. It’s fun!

Let’s get started on hobbies and sports, that’s what it’s about, right? Well I’m making an effort to stay in form. :) I like playing Badminton, in the winter I go snowboarding and in the summer I sometimes play beach volleyball at the lake. Besides that I of course follow the sports events in the media.

…but depending on which of the four conditions they’d been assigned to, the rest of the email varied. For those in the first (control) condition, it ended there. In contrast, those in the fourth condition received this additional information:

I’m also lucky to be a friend of Roger Federer’s (we’ve known each other for ages, ever since kindergarten), we hang out or play Playstation, and from time to time we exercise together, go for runs or stuff, well, if he has time that is. Roger’s a really nice guy. All those honors he gets, he deserves it, trust me, he’s an exceptional person both on the court and beyond! This year again was great for him and I hope he’ll continue like that for another couple of years!

Looking forward to meeting you, See you Wednesday,

Michael

When the participants later showed up for the bogus study, they were administered a questionnaire that asked them, among other things, how they felt about “Michael.” As hypothesized, those in the two name-dropping conditions judged Michael as significantly less likeable and less competent in general than did those in the other two conditions. There was only a negligible (that is to say, statistically insignificant) difference between the conditions in which Michael claimed to be Federer’s friend or both his friend and training partner: participants didn’t look kindly on either claim.

Unfortunately, the psychological processes involved in this assessment aren’t entirely clear from this preliminary study. But it’s valuable to the extent that it empirically demonstrated a measurable effect of name-dropping on social evaluation. The authors believe that those in the name-dropping conditions felt manipulated by Michael, and that they viewed this sycophantic Federer love-fest as so jarring, unexpected and inappropriate that it prompted a search of Michael’s deceptive intentions.

The authors contrast their findings to a number of related studies showing that the audience’s perception of an actor’s relationship with positive others renders the actor more appealing. For example, in a study from 2006 by psychologists Seth Carter and Lawrence Sanna at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, people were more tolerant and forgiving of someone who shared their birthday with Mother Teresa than they were of others. And an older study from 1981 by psychologists Michael Kernis and Ladd Wheeler, then at the University of Rochester, revealed that people who were friends with physically attractive people were often seen as more attractive themselves. In contrast to the name-dropping experiment, however, participants in these other studies found out about the actors’ associations without the actor verbally boasting about their connections.

Oh, gosh, look at the time. I really must go; I forgot all about my dinner engagement with Gore Vidal this evening. You know how he gets. (I’ll dish about it next week.)

In this column presented by Scientific American Mind magazine, research psychologist Jesse Bering of Queen's University Belfast ponders some of the more obscure aspects of everyday human behavior. Ever wonder why yawning is contagious, why we point with our index fingers instead of our thumbs or whether being breastfed as an infant influences your sexual preferences as an adult? Get a closer look at the latest data as “Bering in Mind” tackles these and other quirky questions about human nature. Sign up for the RSS feed or friend Dr. Bering onFacebook and never miss an installment again.