Saturday, 2 June 2018

Middle initials and perceptions of intellectual ability

Continuing the theme from this week, I just read this article by Wijnand van Tilburg (university of Southampton) and Eric Igou (University of Limerick), published in the European Journal of Social Psychology (ungated earlier version here). The authors use survey data drawn from seven studies undertaken with different samples (most were University of Limerick students, but other samples were online samples from the U.S. and continental Europe) to investigate whether the use of middle initials affects people's perceptions of intellectual performance. They find that:
Authors with middle initials compared with authors with no (or less) middle initials were perceived to be better writers (Studies 1 and 5). In addition, people with names that included middle initials were expected to perform better in an intellectual — but not athletic — competition (Studies 3 and 6) and were anticipated to be more knowledgeable and to have a higher level of education (Study 7). In addition, a similar pattern of results was obtained on perceived status (Studies 2 and 4), which was identified to mediate the middle initials effects (Studies 5-7)...
Additional support for the robustness of the middle initials effect is evident from the use of both male and female name variations and by observing the phenomenon across samples of Western Europeans as well as North Americans.
In other words, using your middle initial(s) increases people's perceptions of your intellectual ability. However, I wouldn't read too much into it. The effect seemed to not be apparent when there was some other signal of intellectual ability - for instance, the effect of middle initials for people who were identified to research participants as 'professors' was in the opposite direction (but not statistically significant). So, using a middle initial only may actually not be valuable for authors of research papers.

However, it is worth noting that this was purely a stated preference study. It would be interesting to follow this up by looking at actual research papers, comparing those with authors using their middle initials with those without, in terms of subsequent citations or other measures of research quality. Of special interest would be cases where the same author uses their middle initials in some papers and not in others, and cases where middle initials are required (or prohibited) by the journal's style policy, especially if that policy has changed over time. Definitely doable, using a similar method to the papers I wrote about earlier in the week (see here and here).

In my own case, I do usually use my middle initial. However, this is for purely practical reasons. When you have a common name, it is easy to confuse readers about who you are. For instance, there was another Michael Cameron at the Ministry of Health at the time I started writing on public health issues, and I'm sure there are many others (although interestingly, I'm the only one with a Google Scholar profile, there are at least 13 Michael Camerons with profiles on Research Gate). Hence, I am "Michael P. Cameron" in almost all of my authorship credits.

[HT: Marginal Revolution]

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