Years ago, I stopped using my middle initial on business cards, bylines, and other places. I’m not quite sure why I changed… simplicity? Google? New research shows that making that switch might have been a dumb move.
Would you be smarter if you used your middle initial? Probably not. But you might seem smarter to other people! A new study shows that subjects who read written material rated the writer as more intelligent if the writer had a middle initial.
At first glance, this appears to make no sense, a characteristic of many surprising findings in psychology research. But, the scientists teased out the underlying logic: middle initials were associated with intellectual domains. A professor might be David F. Clark, while your car mechanic would likely be known as David Clark. (Or maybe just “Big Dave!”)
The middle initial effect wasn’t foolproof. The researchers found they could cancel the boost in perceived intellect by providing non-matching status cues, e.g., suggesting that the piece was written by a member of the pub darts club. (I’m sure many intellectuals actually do play darts at their local, but we’re working with stereotypes here.)
If One Middle Initial Is Good…
The scientists tested a variety of combinations, and TWO middle initials provided an even bigger boost than one. Unfortunately, the subjects weren’t asked to rate the probability that the writer was a pretentious jerk.
Should You Add An Initial (or Two)?
If you are seeking credibility in a professional or academic setting, it’s possible that an initial might give you a tiny boost. So, for magazine articles, guest blog posts on serious topics, etc., why not give it a try? Perhaps speakers should consider it, too.
There are a couple of downsides that I can see. One is that Google might be a bit confused by references to “James Smith” in some places and “James F. Smith” in others. And will searchers (who perhaps heard you mentioned in passing, or met you at a conference) remember your middle initial? Probably not. For web content you create, be sure to establish Google authorship – that will resolve any initial confusion, and have a variety of other benefits as well.
The other drawback of adding the middle initial to your personal brand (beyond striking a few people as pretentious) is that it begs the question, “Why?” Is there another person with the same name, better known, that you are trying to distinguish yourself from? (Indeed, that probably was one reason I used mine when I began my business career. My father, with whom I shared my name, was an author, film critic, and professor – had Google been around a few decades ago, I probably would have had to use my middle name just to be found at all!)
Here’s an experiment you can try… Make reservations at a popular restaurant, and add a couple of middle initials to your name (like J.R.R. Tolkien). Let us know if you get a better-than-usual table and quicker seating!