Implicit Egotism: Liking Things We Associate with Ourselves

Some psychological science findings are just plain fun. Few are more so than the studies of what Brett Pelham and his colleagues call “implicit egotism”—our tendency to like what’s associated with us. We tend to like

  • letters that appear in our name,
  • numbers that resemble our birthdate,
  • politicians whose faces are morphed to include features of our own, and even—here comes the weird part—
  • places and careers with names resembling our own name.

Believe it or not, Philadelphia has a disproportionate number of residents named Phil. Virginia Beach has a disproportionate number of people named Virginia, as does St. Louis  with men named Louis. And California and Toronto have an excess number of people whose names begin, respectively, with Cali (as in Califano) and Tor.

Pelham and his colleagues surmise that “People are attracted to places that resemble their names” . . . and to name-related careers, with American dentists being twice as likely to be named “Dennis” as the equally popular names “Jerry” or “Walter.”

As I mentioned in a previous blog essay, Pelham’s work has been criticized. Pelham replied, and now, with Mauricio Carvallo, offers Census data showing that people named Baker, Butcher, Carpenter, Mason, Farmer, and so forth disproportionately gravitate toward occupations that bear their names (despite the separation of countless generations from the original “Baker” who was a baker). And “men named Cal and Tex disproportionately moved to states resembling their names.”

Moreover, in unpublished work, Pelham and his colleagues found that a century and more ago, when most people were born at home and birth certificates were completed later, people tended to declare birth dates associated with a positive identity. Assuming that births (before induced labor and C-sections) were randomly distributed, people between 1890 and 1910 over-claimed Christmas Day birthdays by 66 percent and New Year’s Day birthdays by 62 percent. Parents also over-claimed birthdays associated with famous people’s birthdays, such as George Washington’s—though only U.S. immigrants from Ireland strongly over-claimed St. Patrick’s Day birthdays (at more than three times the expected rate).

The birth registration process once allowed wiggle room, and “where there is wiggle room, there is often wiggling,” report Pelham and his team. “And a potent motivation for wiggling might be the desire to claim a positive social identity.” Implicit egotism rides again.