Tell me what’s your name, and I will tell you which letters you like!
Almost forty years ago, in 1984, Belgian psychologist Jozef Nuttin (1933-2014) reported that people particularly liked letters that appear in their names. He coined the term Name-Letter Effect (NLE) to describe this preference and argued that it was an indicator of self-attachment. Nuttin’s conjecture emerged from an “Aha!” experience he had while driving on the highway. It occurred to him that the license plates of some passing cars gave him a pleasant feeling. Wondering why this might happen, he noticed that these plates contained some letters in his name. He speculated that people prefer stimuli that are associated with the self, no matter how trivially.
In his lab at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, Nuttin designed experiments to test the hypothesis that people place a higher value on letters that feature in their name. For instance, he created a yoked control design in which two subjects evaluated the same letters separately. Some of the letters belonged to one subject's name, and some of the letters belonged to the other subject's name, while some were random. In this design, any difference in preference between subjects would have to be based on whether the letter occurred in their name.
The name-letter effect has been replicated in dozens of studies up today, involving subjects from over 15 countries, using four different alphabets. It holds across age and gender. People who changed their names many years ago tend to prefer the letters of both their current and original names over non-name letters. The effect is most prominent for initials, but even when initials are excluded, the remaining letters of both given and family names still tend to be preferred over non-name letters.
Most people like themselves; the name is associated with the self, and hence the letters of the name are preferred, even though they appear in many other words. People who do not like themselves tend not to exhibit the name-letter effect. Alternative explanations for the name-letter effect, such as frequent exposure and early mastery, have been ruled out. In psychological assessments, the Name Letter Preference Task is widely used to estimate implicit self-esteem.