Insight of the Week
June 16, 2023

Is Dennis More Likely to Become a Dentist?

Researchers tried replicating a controversial principle in which you make important life decisions based on the first letter of your name.

A dentist with nametag that says Dennis


Based on the name-letter effect, you prefer the first letter of your name. My name is Nick Kolenda, so I prefer n and k.

But there's a controversial extension — nominative determinism — which argues that you make important life decisions based on this preference. In a classic example, people named Dennis are more likely to become dentists (Pelham, Mirenberg, & Jones, 2002).

Researchers have criticized those studies for methodological flaws, but a top journal in psychology just published a new study that fixed those issues with machine learning. And it successfully replicated the effect (Chatterjee, Mishra, & Mishra, 2023).

What does that mean? It means that Liam is more likely to:

  • Become a Lawyer.
  • Reside in London.
  • Perform other behaviors that begin with L.

Perhaps most interesting, women started choosing name-letter careers more frequently across the 20th century:

Graph that shows women are choosing more name-letter careers across the 1900s
"...the difference between the genders diminished over time...for women, an increasing nominative determinism effect indicates that their ability to choose a profession that matches their name (and, thus, their self-identity) has improved" (Chatterjee, Mishra, & Mishra, 2023, p. 10)

My Thoughts

Many researchers were (and maybe still) skeptical of this idea.

But in reality, Dennis didn't wake up and shout: "I'm going to be a dentist."

Just like I won't suddenly move to Nicktown, Pennsylvania.

So how would this effect happen in the real world?

Well, I live in Cary, North Carolina. When I moved from Boston a few years ago, I considered Cary and Morrisville based on rational criteria (e.g., good weather, near Raleigh and Durham).

My PO Box in this email says Morrisville, but I chose to live in Cary because it "felt right."

But Cary could "feel right" for many reasons:

  • Short and easy name
  • Similarity to "k" in Kolenda
  • Same length as Nick

Those reasons are trivial, but they can trigger a gut preference toward Cary.

Then I would rationalize this preference with logic: Hmm, why does Cary feel right? Guess I enjoy the vibe and location.

So, am I living in Cary because of a rational decision? Or am I living here because of stupid factors, like its name?

There's a famous quote in advertising: "Half my advertising spend is wasted; the trouble is, I don’t know which half."

I feel the same in decision making: Half my decisions are wrongly attributed. The trouble is, I don't know which half.

Other New Studies

  • People Are Motivated By Money - Researchers analyzed 90,000 recruitment emails for surveys. The best incentive? Money. It outperformed all behavioral strategies (e.g., social proof, altruism, endowment effect; Martin et al., 2022).
  • Don't Use Multiple Emojis in a First Message - Too many emojis trigger red flags, at least in a dating context (Stein, 2023).
  • Handmade Products Seem Worse When You Feel Less Control - Imagine a husband who was dragged to a festival by his wife. In this mindset, he will feel repulsed by the tables selling handmade products because they won't satisfy his desire for control and autonomy. However, this effect can be resolved by allowing him to customize these products (Song, He, & Jiang, 2023).