Skip to content

How many people choose careers based on their names?

Following up on the last entry (see below), here’s make a quick estimate of the proportion of people who choose a career based on their first name:

p1 * first_letter_effect + p2 * first_2_letters_effect + p3 * first_3_letters_effect

Here, p1 is the proportion of careers that begin with the first letter of your name, and the “first letter effect” is the extra proportion of people in a specific career beginning with the same first letter of their name. Similarly, p2 is the proportion of careers that share the first 2 letters of your name, and the “first 2 letters effect” is the extra proportion with that career, and similarly for p3. One could go on to p4 etc., but the idea is that, after p3, the probability of actually sharing the first 4 letters is so low as to contribute essentially nothing to the total.

Now, for some quick estimates: The simplest estimates for p1, p2, p3 are 1/26, 1/26^2, 1/26^3, but that’s not quite right because all letters are not equally likely. Just to make a guess, I’ll say 1/10 for p1, 1/50 for p2, and 1/150 for p3.

What about the “letter effects”? For “Dennis” the effect was estimated to be about 221/(482-221) = .85–that is, about 85% more dentists named Dennis than would be expected by chance alone. But “Dennis” and “dentist” sound so much alike, so let’s take a conservative value of 50% for the “first-3-letters-effect.” The first-2-letters-effect and first-letter effects must be much smaller–I’ll guess them at 5% and 15%, respectively.

In that case, the total effect is

(1/10)*.05 + (1/50)*.15 + (1/150)*.50 = 0.011, or basically a 1% effect.

So, my quick estimate, based on the work of Pelham, Mirenberg, and Jones, is that approximately 1% of people choose their career based on their first name. As I said, I’m taking their results at face value; you can read their article for detailed discussions of potential objections to their findings.


  1. Skip Livingston says:

    The relevant comparison can be shown easily in the form of a 2X2 contingency table. The rows would indicate whether or not the person's name begins with "Den", and the columns would indicate whether or not the person's occupation begins with "Den". It should then be a simple matter to see how much the observed proportion in the "yes,yes" cell differs from the product of the marginal proportions, which is what you would expect in the absence of any effect. It might be best to conduct the analysis separately for males and females, and possibly also to separate by level of education.

  2. Gedgerhodge Sercilia says:

    I do not believe that people choose their careers by the first letter of their name. There may be coincidences that cause this, but it is something to look at and is interesting…