In late October 2012 Hurricane Sandy bulldozed its way through the Caribbean and across the Mid-Atlantic before hitting land again in the North-Eastern United States causing a trail of destruction and devastation in its wake. Violent gusts nearing 100 mph accompanied by lashing rains left widespread damage estimated at over $75 billion. In the aftermath many thousands of individuals as well as organizations such as the American Red Cross and the United Nations marshaled resources towards clean-up and relief operations. Corporations and businesses helped too. A number of network news channels held telethons and appeals that generated millions of dollars in donations.
The role played by the news networks wasn’t just limited to encouraging contributions towards relief efforts. They were also responsible for generating a series of unofficial names for the hurricane. Snowicane was one such example that served to highlight the projected snow fall that would accompany hurricane Sandy. Frankenstorm was another – a reference to the storm’s close proximity to Halloween.
While I am not aware of any evidence that assigning an unofficial name to a hurricane would have any influence on an individual’s likelihood to support relief efforts, there is evidence of a connection between a hurricane’s official name and some individual’s likelihood to donate.
Not only is this connection surprising, it could offer some important insights into how you persuade others in the future.
In a 2008 paper published in the journal Judgment and Decision Making, psychology professor Jesse Chandler highlighted an important factor that appeared to influence people’s likelihood to donate to fund raising appeals set up to help hurricane victims. People were more likely to donate if the initial of their first name matched the name given to the hurricane. For example, those whose names began with the letter R, such as Robert or Rosemary, were 260% more likely to donate to the Hurricane Rita relief appeal than those whose name didn’t begin with the letter R. A similar effect was noted after Hurricane Katrina with folks whose name starts with a K significantly more motivated to donate. And so on. In each case a disproportionate number of donations came from those with the same initial as the hurricane.
In his super interesting new book Drunk TanK Pink, Adam Alter, a Professor of Marketing at NYU’s Stern Business School makes a serious point. If people are more likely to donate to hurricane relief programs that share their initials, then the World Meteorological Organization which is responsible for naming hurricanes has the power to increase charitable giving simply by giving hurricanes more commonly occurring names.
To dismiss these insights as simply arbitrary would be to dismiss a fundamental feature of our psychology. Our names matter to us.
We can all recall a time when we have been deep in conversation with someone, maybe at a conference or at a business meeting. We are so focused on what is being said that we are largely oblivious to what’s going on around us. But then we hear our name mentioned from another part of the room and instantly our attention is diverted. It’s almost as if an invisible antenna exists that constantly scans the environment waiting to tune into mentions of our name – a phenomenon psychologists refer to as “The Cocktail Party Effect”.
Should you need further convincing of how important people’s names are to them, then you might like to try this little experiment next time you’re in a meeting. Simply hand out a sheet of paper to everyone in the room and ask them to write down their 5 favorite letters of the alphabet. If they are anything like the subjects in studies where this has been done, when you review their choices you will likely notice a remarkable similarity between the letters they choose and their own names, especially their initials.
All of which brings us to ask what has this to do with business and influence?
Well, given that an important part of any successful persuasion strategy will be to get people’s attention, at a basic level it seems sensible to use people’s names more often – or at least signal that your request or message has some connection to their name. For example, recent studies have shown that including a person’s first name in a text message reminding them to attend a health appointment or to pay a local tax increases, response rates significantly compared to sending exactly the same message but without their name.
And as for generating support for a new business initiative or work program, one wonders whether Professor Alter’s hurricane advice might also apply. When it comes to considering what name you should give to that new project of yours you may be tempted to consider an ambiguous, mysterious sounding name in the hope that it will spark interest and get people’s attention. These studies however suggest that you would perhaps receive more support by looking down the list of people who work in the department responsible for implementing your project and choosing a name that most commonly matches theirs. Or at the very least, tally up the most commonly occurring initial among the group and use that as a basis for your project name.
Has using someone’s name ever made a difference in your influence attempts? Or perhaps you have been influenced by someone using yours? What happened?
We’d love to hear your examples of names given to projects and initiatives? How successful (or not) were they?
Chandler, J., Griffin, T., & Sorensen, N. (2008). In the “I” of the storm: First name initial influences donations to disaster relief efforts. Judgment and Decision Making, 5, 404-410.
Alter, A. DRUNK TANK PINK (2013) Penguin Press. New York.
Nuttin, J.M. (1985). The name letter effect. European Journal of Social Psychology. 15, 353-361.