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Invoking Someone’s Middle Name Can Have a Psychological Effect

·452 words·3 mins
Psyched for the Weekend

It’s basically a trope at this point. When a child is in trouble, a parent calls them by their full name: First, middle, and last.

“John Quincy Adams, you get right down here this minute!”

Fun fact: I wanted to use Abraham Lincoln as an example, but he didn’t have a middle name. Neither did George Washington. In fact, most early presidents didn’t.

Anyway, interestingly I’ve found that it’s not just parents who do the whole “invocation of the middle name means you’re in deep doo-doo” thing. I’ve seen it happen between spouses, close friends, you name it.

Hell, I even did it to the cat the other day. It’s inescapable.

And it’s also why I was very amused to find a research study that digs down into the psychological effect using someone’s middle name can have.

Invoking Someone’s Middle Name Can Have a Psychological Effect… Depending on Where You Are

This study looked at a sample of more than 1200 adults from the United States and India. It found the following:

  • Being reminded of one’s middle name was associated with increased feelings of guilt and lower indulgence (tested by researchers via measuring participant’s preferences for indulgent items).
  • This effect was only found in the adults from the United States. It did not exist in the adults from India, demonstrating this is not a cross-cultural phenomenon.
  • Reminders of one’s middle name was _not _associated with any of the following in the US sample: Shame, pride, anger, or self-efficacy (the belief that one can accomplish reasonable tasks on a consistent basis).

Briefly, the difference between guilt and shame is this: Guilt is feeling bad because you did something bad. Shame is feeling that you yourself are bad; it is not tied to your actions but to your identity and your whole self.

Generally, guilt is viewed as a normal occurrence and a healthy part of social relating, as it spurs the individual to correct inappropriate actions. It can be uncomfortable, but as a force, it has a productive purpose. Shame, however, is generally viewed as unhelpful, since it is typically just stressful and self-defeating and results in paralysis and often maladaptive coping that makes the shame spiral worse.


Anyway, re: this particular study’s findings: Huh. Very neat. Maybe there’s something to it, after all. Perhaps there’s a button there that people are pushing when they use someone’s full name to get their attention (at least in the United States).


This post is part of an ongoing Poly Land feature called Psyched for the Weekend, in which I geek out with brief takes about some of my favorite psychological studies and concepts. For the entire series, please see this link.



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