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“Names, all by themselves, don’t have any stimulus value. But when you associate them with a person, you activate deep associations.” — J. Keith Murnighan, the Harold H. Hines Jr. Professor of Risk Management

J. Keith Murnighan

‘What’s in a name?’

When it comes to building trust, positive or negative associations with a particular name can make all the difference, Kellogg researchers find

By Rachel Farrell

2/15/2011 - What comes to mind when you hear the name “Paula”? How about “Jack”? Or “Nathan”?

If you’re someone who holds strong associations — either positive or negative — with any of those names, then exposure to that name may have a powerful impact on your behavior. It can influence whether you decide to trust or distrust a complete stranger. And you probably aren’t even aware of it.

That’s according to the study, “What’s in a name? Subliminally activating trusting behavior,” co-authored by Kellogg Ph.D. student Li Huang and J. Keith Murnighan, the Harold H. Hines Jr. Professor of Risk Management. In a series of experiments, Huang and Murnighan found that subliminally activating information associated with relational schema (i.e., names) in subjects had a significant impact on subjects’ trust development process before they were consciously aware that they were making an assessment of trust.

In one of the experiments, study participants were asked to sit in front of a computer and list the names of people whom they liked, disliked, trusted and distrusted. Next, participants were asked to keep a running total of the numbers that they saw flashing in front of the screen. Interspersed with these numbers was the name of a person that the participant listed earlier, flashed at 60 milliseconds each time — a pace too fast for participants to consciously see it — for 32 times. As a final step, participants played a game in which they received $5 and were asked to decide how much (all, part or none) of the $5 they would like to send to another participant — knowing that the amount they sent would be tripled and the recipient would decide how much of the tripled amount to send back.

As a whole, participants who were subliminally primed with “liked” names gave almost twice the amount of money to a stranger (about $4) than those who were primed with “disliked” names (about $2). In addition, nearly 50 percent of the participants who saw “liked” or “trusted” names — albeit subconsciously — sent their entire endowment to strangers, compared with 15 percent of the participants who were subliminally primed with names of people they distrusted.

Murnighan and Li talk about the challenges, surprising results and real-world implications of the study.

Q: What was the impetus for this study?

Li Huang: There is a long line of research that looks at how priming might have an impact on whether we help other people and how much we like other people. We wondered if it would also have an impact on whether we expected other people to act in our best interests or not.

Q: Why did you decide to use names as a priming tool?

Keith Murnighan: Names, all by themselves, don’t have any stimulus value. But when you associate them with a person, you activate deep associations. So for some of our subjects, the name “Bob” might have tremendously positive associations; for others, negative. From a research point of view, we’re saying, it’s that association that matters — not the name itself.

LH: We’re using the most personal kind of information and seeing how this information triggers other associations in your relational schema — a network of information on people you trust, how you interact with those that you trust or distrust, etc.

Q: What were some of the challenges of the study?

LH: We took caution to make sure that people were giving us the names of people that they trusted instead of people that they liked. We had to find ways to tease those apart.

Q: What’s the shelf life for activating positive or negative associations?

KM: We truly don’t know. When you activate feelings of happiness or sadness, they don’t last very long.

LH: It might last longer if the prime has a more personal context — like a name — or if the prime is repeated more times. But we have yet to empirically test that.

Q: Were there any results of the study that surprised you?

KM: Liking or trusting people led to the same amount of subsequent trust. That was a surprise to us. It took the names of people who were disliked and not trustworthy to reduce subsequent trust in a stranger. So, the only names that reduced trust in the end were names of people that you both distrusted and disliked, whereas people you liked but didn’t exactly trust (for example, a friend who doesn’t always keep a secret) can still trigger trusting behavior when you are subliminally primed with their names.

Q: What are the implications of this study?

LH: This process can potentially be misused, even unintentionally. For example, look at peer-to-peer lending websites: They act as an intermediary between family, friends and strangers to help people get loans that they wouldn’t normally get from a traditional financial institution. These lending websites allow borrowers to present lots of information to appeal to the lenders at a more personal level. Some of the information might inadvertently prime the lenders. This might help to explain the very high default rate — around 40 percent — of these loans.