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People gravitate toward people, places, and things that resemble the self. We refer to this tendency as implicit egotism, and we suggest that it reflects an unconscious process that is grounded in people's favorable self-associations. We review recent archival and experimental research that supports this position, highlighting evidence that rules out alternate explanations and distinguishes implicit egotism from closely related ideas such as mere exposure. Taken together, the evidence suggests that implicit egotism is an implicit judgmental consequence of people's positive self-associations. We conclude by identifying promising areas for future research.
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Implicit Egotism
Brett W. Pelham,
1
Mauricio Carvallo,
1
and John T. Jones
2
1
University at Buffalo, State University of New York, and
2
U.S. Military Academy, West Point
ABSTRACT—People gravitate toward people, places, and
things that resemble the self. We refer to this tendency as
implicit egotism, and we suggest that it reflects an un-
conscious process that is grounded in people’s favorable
self-associations. We review recent archival and experi-
mental research that supports this position, highlighting
evidence that rules out alternate explanations and dis-
tinguishes implicit egotism from closely related ideas such
as mere exposure. Taken together, the evidence suggests
that implicit egotism is an implicit judgmental con-
sequence of people’s positive self-associations. We conclude
by identifying promising areas for future research.
KEYWORDS—implicit; egotism; self-esteem
Researchers have long known that how people view themselves
plays an important role in virtually every aspect of their daily
lives, including phenomena as diverse as personal achieve-
ment, interpersonal attraction, and even physical well-being. In
recent years, however, researchers have argued that people’s
conscious self-evaluations provide an incomplete view of the
self-concept. Specifically, researchers have argued that people’s
implicit (i.e., unconscious) self-evaluations also influence their
judgment and behavior (Greenwald & Banaji, 1995; Hetts &
Pelham, 2001). Implicit self-evaluations are not beliefs that a
Freudian homunculus has banished to the unconscious. In-
stead, such beliefs are probably best conceptualized as part of
the cognitive or adaptive unconscious (Kihlstrom, 1987). Pre-
sumably, some implicit self-evaluations consist of beliefs that
were once conscious but have become highly automatized.
Other implicit self-evaluations might be unconscious because
they were formed prior to the individual’s acquisition of lan-
guage. Although few researchers have acknowledged the pos-
sibility, it may also be that implicit self-evaluations are a
product of defensive processes to which people have little or no
conscious access. Finally, implicit self-evaluations may be a
product of classical conditioning or implicit learning, that is,
associative learning that occurs in the absence of conscious
awareness. Thus, just as puppies do not know why they salivate,
people may not always know why they trust a stranger who
sounds vaguely like Garrison Keillor.
It is now well documented that people possess implicit self-
evaluations—that is, unconscious associations about the self.
It is also well-documented that most implicit self-associations
are highly favorable. Two decades ago, Nuttin (1985) showed
that people like the letters that appear in their own names much
more than other people like these same letters—a phenomenon
Nuttin called the name-letter effect. Nuttin also showed that
people who preferred the letters in their own names were typi-
cally unaware of the basis of this preference. Similarly, Beggan
(1992) showed that once people are given an object people
evaluate the object more favorably than they would otherwise—
a phenomenon called the mere-ownership effect. Give Ivan a
puppy, and he will overestimate the puppy’s worth, presumably
because the puppy has become an extension of the self.
It is now well established that people possess positive implicit
associations about themselves. Until very recently, however, it
was unclear whether people’s implicit self-associations ever
predict meaningful social behaviors (but see Dijksterhuis, 2004;
Shimizu & Pelham, 2004; Spalding & Hardin, 1999). To address
this question, we investigated the role of implicit self-associations
in major life decisions. Our primary hypothesis was simple. If
Dennis adores the letter D, then it might not be too far-fetched to
expect Dennis to gravitate toward cities such as Denver, careers
such as dentistry, and romantic partners such as Denise. Pelham,
Mirenberg, and Jones (2002) referred to this unconscious ten-
dency to prefer things that resemble the self as implicit egotism.
In a series of articles (Jones, Pelham, Carvallo, & Mirenberg,
2004; Pelham, Mirenberg, & Jones, 2002; Pelham, Carvallo,
DeHart, & Jones, 2003), we reported the results of numerous
archival studies (i.e., studies relying on public records such as
birth, marriage, or death records) and experiments suggesting
that implicit egotism influences major life decisions. As sug-
gested by the list in Table 1, which summarizes many of our re-
cent studies, implicit egotism appears to influence a wide variety
of important decisions. In the remainder of this report, we address
some of the strengths and limitations of our research on implicit
egotism and then offer some suggestions for future research.
Address correspondence to Brett Pelham, Department of Psychology,
SUNY, Buffalo, Buffalo, NY 14260; e-mail: brettpel@buffalo.edu.
CURRENT DIRECTIONS IN PSYCHOLOGICAL SCIENCE
106 Volume 14—Number 2Copyright r2005 American Psychological Society
STUDYING IMPLICIT EGOTISM
In our initial article (Pelham et al., 2002), we argued that im-
plicit egotism influences both where people choose to live and
what people choose to do for a living. For instance, in Study 1 of
this article, we identified four common female first names that
strongly resembled the name of a Southeastern state. The names
were Florence, Georgia, Louise, and Virginia, corresponding
with the states Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, and Virginia. We
then consulted Social Security Death Index (SSDI) records
(kept since the advent of the Social Security system) to identify
women who had died while living in each of the four relevant
Southeastern states. This design yielded a 4 4 matrix of
name–state combinations, and a total sample size of more than
75,000 women. Women named Florence, Georgia, Louise, and
Virginia were all disproportionately likely (on average, 44%
above chance values) to have resided in the state that closely
resembled their first name.
Ruling Out Confounds
This study raised many concerns about possible confounds. One
concern was the possibility that these women disproportionately
resided in states whose names resembled their own first names
simply because they had been named after the states in which
they had been born (and had never moved). Although SSDI
records do not indicate where the deceased were born, these
records do indicate the state in which they resided when they
applied for social security cards (typically as adults). Using
these records, we were able to focus on people who got their
social security cards in one state and died while residing in
another—that is, people who had moved into the states in which
they died. An analysis of these interstate immigrants yielded
clear and consistent evidence for implicit egotism.
Another concern about this study is that the results might
reflect explicit rather than implicit egotism. It would be ex-
tremely surprising if Virginia failed to notice the resemblance
between her first name and the state name that appeared on her
driver’s license. Archival research methods do not always lend
themselves well to documenting implicit effects. Nonetheless,
we have tried. In other studies summarized in the same article
(Pelham et al., 2002), we focused on names that, unlike Georgia
and Virginia, shared only their first few letters with the states or
cities to which people with those names gravitated. When Sa-
muel Winters moves to Winnipeg, for example, it seems un-
likely that he will conclude that the first few letters of his
surname are the reason for his move.
Watering down a manipulation in this fashion tends to water
down the size of the effect obtained. But to our surprise, implicit
egotism proved to be sufficiently robust that it survived
systematic tests involving relatively subtle manipulations. We
were able to show, for example (Pelham et al., 2002; Study 6),
that people disproportionately inhabit cities whose names fea-
ture their birthday numbers. Just as people born on February 2
(02-02) disproportionately inhabit cities with names such as
Two Harbors, people born on May 5 (05-05) disproportionately
inhabit cities with names such as Five Points. This birthday-
number study also illustrated that implicit egotism is not limi-
ted to name-letter preferences. Presumably, any meaningful
TABLE 1
A Selective Summary of the Most Comprehensive Studies Providing Support for Implicit Egotism
Pelham, B.W., Mirenberg, M.C., & Jones, J.K. (2002):
1. Four most common female first names that resemble Southeastern state names
2. Four most common male first names that resemble Southeastern state names
3. Eight largest U.S. states and surnames resembling these state names
4. Eight largest Canadian cities and surnames resembling these city names
5. Four most common male and female names that resemble the occupations ‘‘dentist’’ and ‘‘lawyer’’
6. All U.S. cities that prominently feature number words in the names (matched with numbers corresponding to
people’s day and month of birth)
Pelham, B.W., Carvallo, M., DeHart, T., & Jones, J.T. (2003):
1. The 30 most common European American surnames and all U.S. cities that include the surname anywhere in
the city name (e.g., Johnson City, Johnsonville, Fort Johnson, etc.)
2. The three most common U.S. surname pairs (e.g., Smith–Johnson) and street names that include these
surnames (each pair was replicated individually in each U.S. state)
3. Three sets of surnames chosen to avoid spurious name–street matches (e.g., Hill–Park) and street names that
included these names or words (each pair also replicated individually in each U.S. state)
Jones, J.T., Pelham, B.W., Carvallo, M., & Mirenberg, M.C. (2004):
1. Matches for first letter of surname in two large counties, covering approximately 150 years
2. Single initial surname matches for parents of every birth occurring in Texas in 1926
3. Systematic surname match studies of four large Southeastern states over about 150 years
4. Nationwide joint telephone listing study of 12 systematically chosen male and female first names
5. Laboratory experiments involving (a) birthday numbers, and (b) first three letters of surname
6. Subliminal conditioning study using participants’ full names as conditioning stimuli
Volume 14—Number 2 107
Brett W. Pelham, Mauricio Carvallo, and John T. Jones
self-attribute can serve as a source of implicit egotism. Another
finding that seems likely to reflect implicit preferences comes
from studies of street addresses. Whereas people whose sur-
name is Street tend to have addresses that include the word
Street (e.g., Lincoln Street), people whose surname is Lane tend
to have addresses that include the word Lane (e.g., Lincoln
Lane; Pelham et al., 2003).
Moderators of Implicit Egotism
Can archival studies such as these shed any light on the psy-
chological mechanisms behind implicit egotism? We believe so.
To the degree that archival studies yield support for meaningful
moderators of implicit egotism, such studies can suggest, albeit
indirectly, that implicit egotism is based on self-evaluation. For
example, laboratory research has shown that women show
stronger first-name preferences than men do (perhaps because
many women realize that their first name is the only name they
will keep forever). In keeping with this established finding
in the laboratory research, behavioral first-name preferences
have also proven to be stronger for women than for men (Pelham
et al., 2002).
The distinctiveness of a person’s name also appears to mod-
erate the strength of implicit egotism. Implicit egotism is more
pronounced for rare (i.e., more self-defining) than for common
names. The fact that rare names do a better job of distinguishing
their owners from other people than common names do suggests
that implicit egotism is grounded in identity. By definition,
people with rare names are also exposed to their own names
slightly less often than are people with common names (e.g.,
Zeke meets other people named Zeke less often than John meets
other people named John). The fact that implicit egotism is
stronger among those with statistically rare names also suggests
that implicit egotism is not grounded exclusively in the mere
exposure effect, that is, the tendency for people to prefer stimuli
to which they have been exposed more often (see also Jones
et al., 2002, where this issue is addressed in other ways).
The Problem of Sampling
One of the limitations of archival research on implicit egotism is
that it is often impossible to sample people randomly in such
studies. The researcher is usually forced to sample names
systematically. In some studies, we tackled this problem by
sampling surnames and city or street names from all 50 U.S.
states (Pelham et al., 2003). For example, by systematically
sampling the same common surname pairs (e.g., Smith–
Johnson, Williams–Jones) in all 50 U.S. states, we were able to
document robust name–street matching in six different na-
tionwide samples. Thus, we were able to show, for instance, that
the surname pair Smith–Johnson yielded supportive data for 45
out of 50 individual U.S. states.
Another way in which we have tackled the sampling problem
is by sampling names exhaustively within large geographical
units. In studies of interpersonal attraction, we were sometimes
able to sample entire states or counties. For example, using
exhaustive statewide birth records, Jones et al. (2004) were able
to show that people are disproportionately likely to marry others
who happen to share their first or last initial. (Moreover, in
samples in which it has been possible to determine people’s
ethnicity, we have also been able to control for ethnic matching
(the tendency for people to marry others of their own ethnic
group) by testing our hypothesis within specific ethnic groups
(e.g., among Latinos only). Although archival studies of inter-
personal attraction raise their own methodological problems, we
have gone to great lengths to rule out alternative explanations,
including not only ethnic matching but also age-group matching
and proximity. For instance, we ruled out the possibility that
people married those who were seated near them in high school
(based on surname) by showing that our findings remained robust
among couples whose ages differed by 5 years or more. Our
studies have consistently yielded evidence for implicit egotism.
Assessing Implicit Egotism in the Laboratory
Thomas Edison once said that genius is 1% inspiration and 99%
perspiration. With a little inspiration and a great deal of per-
spiration, researchers who rely on archival research methods
can go a long way toward ruling out alternate explanations for a
particular effect. But as Edison’s contemporary, the methodol-
ogist R.A. Fisher, might have put it, neither inspiration nor
perspiration is a match for randomization. The researcher who
wishes to rule out numerous alternate explanations for a phe-
nomenon, while gaining insights into its underlying mechan-
isms, must occasionally conduct experiments. In our research
on implicit egotism and interpersonal attraction (Jones et al.,
2004), we have done exactly that.
In one experiment, we introduced participants to a bogus
interaction partner whose arbitrarily assigned experimental
code number (e.g., 02-28) either did or did not happen to re-
semble their own birthday number. Participants were more at-
tracted to the stranger when his or her code number resembled
their own birthday number. This study suggests that implicit
egotism is not merely a corollary of the principle that people are
attracted to others who are similar to them. After all, partici-
pants did not think that their interaction partner actually shared
their birthday. In a second experiment, we found that implicit
egotism is most likely to emerge under conditions of self-con-
cept threat (i.e., when people have been forced to think about
their personal weaknesses). Men who had just experienced a
mild self-concept threat (by writing about their personal flaws as
a potential dating partner) were especially attracted to a woman
in a ‘‘Yahoo personals’’ ad when her screen name happened to
contain the first few letters of their surname (e.g., Eric Pelham
would prefer STACEY_PEL to STACEY_SMI). Together with
past research suggesting that self-concept threats temporarily
increase people’s positive associations to the self, this study
suggests that implicit egotism is grounded in self-evaluation
(Beggan, 1992; Jones et al., 2002).
108 Volume 14—Number 2
Implicit Egotism
In a third experiment on interpersonal attraction (Jones et al.,
2004, Study 7), we found the most direct evidence yet for the
underpinnings of implicit egotism. Male and female partici-
pants evaluated an attractive young woman on the basis of her
photograph. The woman was depicted wearing a jersey that
prominently featured either the number 16 or the number 24
(see Fig. 1). Prior to evaluating the woman, participants took
part in 30 trials of a computerized decision-making task in
which they made simple judgments about strings of random
letters. At the beginning of each judgment trial, a row of Xs
appeared briefly in the center of the computer monitor, to focus
participants’ attention. This task was actually a subliminal
conditioning task: The row of Xs was always followed (for 14 ms)
by either the number 16 or the number 24. One of these two
numbers (16 or 24) was always followed by the individual
participant’s own full name (for 14 ms), and the other number
was always followed by one of several gender-matched control
names. Participants liked the woman more, and evaluated her
more favorably, when her jersey number had been subliminally
paired with their own names. Implicit egotism appears to be
implicit.
FROM IMPLICIT EGOTISM TO IMPLICIT SELF-
EVALUATION
We believe that we have established beyond a reasonable doubt
that implicit egotism influences important decisions. Thus, we
believe that future research should attempt to identify mean-
ingful boundary conditions (i.e., predictable limitations) of
implicit egotism. Along these lines, some questions that seem
ripe for investigation involve close relationships, culture, and
implicit self-esteem.
Do name-letter preferences apply exclusively to the self, or do
the names of people to whom one is close also affect one’s
preferences? Do such preferences grow stronger as relation-
ships grow closer? If Bill truly loves Virginia, will he be highly
interested in moving to Virginia, just as she might be? Given
recent developments in the psychology of culture, it might also
be profitable to assess cultural influences on implicit egotism.
One might expect that in collectivistic cultures (i.e., ones that
celebrate collective as opposed to individual identities), name-
letter preferences would be exaggerated for collective aspects of
the self (e.g., surnames might have a greater effect than fore-
names). We are currently planning studies to test this idea. We
have also begun to address the implications of implicit egotism
for more mundane decisions. Specifically, we (Brendl, Chatto-
padhyay, Pelham, & Carvallo, in press) recently found that
people prefer products (e.g., teas, crackers, chocolate candies)
whose names share one or more letters with their own names.
If unconscious self-evaluations influence both mundane and
important daily decisions, it is important to understand the
origins and nature of these implicit self-evaluations—that is, to
understand implicit self-esteem. Do negative social interactions
early in life cause some people to develop low implicit self-
esteem? Apparently they do. In three separate studies, DeHart,
Pelham, and Tennen (in press) asked parents, their adult chil-
dren, or both to report on parent–child interactions in the family
when the children were growing up. Both the children’s and
their parents’ reports of how nurturing the parents had been
were associated with the adult children’s levels of implicit self-
esteem. This association still held true after controlling for
participants’ levels of explicit self-esteem. Studies such as
these raise the question of whether we have observed consistent
evidence for implicit egotism merely because most people are
fortunate enough to possess positive implicit associations to the
self. It is possible that our typical findings would be reversed
among people who possess truly negative self-associations (i.e.,
for those with very low levels of implicit self-esteem). Such
findings might have implications not only for theories of self-
regulation but also for clinical theories of the etiology of de-
pression and self-destructive behaviors. Of course, broad
speculations such as these await empirical scrutiny. However,
we hope that our research on implicit egotism will inspire re-
searchers to take a closer look at the nature of implicit self-
esteem. A complete understanding of the self-concept may
Fig. 1. Stimulus person from subliminal conditioning study (Jones, J.T.,
Pelham, B.W., Carvallo, M., & Mirenberg, M.C., 2004). Participants
evaluated this woman after the number on her jersey (16 or 24) had or had
not been subliminally paired with their own names.
Volume 14—Number 2 109
Brett W. Pelham, Mauricio Carvallo, and John T. Jones
hinge, in part, on a better understanding why Jack loves both
Jackie and Jacksonville.
Recommended Reading
Fazio, R.H., & Olson, M.A. (2003). Implicit measures in social cog-
nition research: Their meaning and uses. Annual Review of Psy-
chology,54, 297–327.
Koole, S.L., & Pelham, B.W. (2003). On the nature of implicit self-
esteem: The case of the name letter effect. In S. Spencer, S. Fein,
& M. Zanna (Eds.), Motivated social perception: The Ontario
Symposium on Personality and Social Psychology (Vol. 9, pp. 93–
116). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
Wilson, T.D., & Dunn, E.W. (2004). Self-knowledge: Its limits, value
and potential for improvement. Annual Review of Psychology,55,
493–518.
Acknowledgments—We thank the many friends and col-
leagues who have encouraged us to pursue this research.
REFERENCES
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mere ownership effect. Journal of Personality and Social Psy-
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Brendl, C.M., Chattopadhyay, A., Pelham, B.W., & Carvallo, M. (in
press). Name letter branding: Valence transfers when product
specific needs are active. Journal of Consumer Research.
DeHart, T., Pelham, B.W., & Tennen, H. (in press). What lies beneath:
Early experiences with parents and implicit self-esteem. Journal
of Experimental Social Psychology.
Dijksterhuis, A. (2004). I like myself but I don’t know why: Enhancing
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110 Volume 14—Number 2
Implicit Egotism
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