Middle Initials Make You Seem Smarter

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George R.R. Martin sure seems smart. It might not be the hundreds of characters and complicated plots in the Song of Ice and Fire series (Game of Thrones to neophytes) that make him seem so intelligent, though—it might be his middle initials. A recent study found that we believe that people who use their middle initials with their full names are automatically smarter than those who do not.

“We noticed that middle initials seemed commonly used in domains associated with intellectual performance. We wondered if this link between the common use of middle initials and intellectual domains of performance affected people's impressions of others,” writes Wijnand A.P. van Tilburg, a research fellow in psychology at the University of Southampton in the United Kingdom.

In a series of experiments, van Tilburg and his colleague, Eric R. Igou, a senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Limerick, Ireland, asked people to evaluate written passages by authors with or without middle initials. In one experiment, 85 university students read the exact same paragraph about general relativity. The only difference was that the paragraph had different author names on it—either an author without a middle initial or an author with one, two, or three middle initials.

The students thought the excerpt written by an author with middle initials was better than if it were by the author without a middle initial in the name. The researchers suspect that people believe that smarter people use their initials in professional endeavors. But the positive effects only relate to brainy pursuits.

“The display of middle initials only increased perceived performance in intellectual domains. Middle initials do not seem to increase, for example, perceived athletic skills,” says van Tilburg.