When Using a Full Name Dilutes a Person's Power

Read enough fantasy novels and you'll inevitably run into plot points about the power of names. To lose your true name, for instance, often has terrible consequences, just like reclaiming it can make you a hero. We enjoy these stories because we recognize, on some level, that they're relevant in real life. New research points out how seriously we should take what others call us.

Psychologists at Cornell University have just shared a study examining differences in how colleagues refer to men and women, and whether that affects their chances of success and advancement in their careers. Men, the researchers note, are often discussed by surname — think of Darwin, Beethoven, or Churchill. Women, however, are often qualified with a given name: Most people don't lead with "Austen." They'll say "Jane Austen"; same with, say, Marie Curie or Audrey Hepburn.

The Cornell team found that using a last name only made other people think of that person as more powerful, famous, or important. According to the study's authors: "This sort of judgment could result in more recognition, awards, funding, and other career benefits, and suggests that a subtle difference in the way we talk about women and men might lead to bias."

It's worth watching how you discuss the people you relate to, not just in your personal life but at the office as well. If your company has a culture around how it refers to co-workers, see if there's an opening for leveling the playing field, even in the smallest and most unconscious of ways.