Alphabetical Disorder This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This work has won the Teen Ink contest in its category.

June 4, 2012
Did you stumble across this essay at the top of a stack or the bottom? Are you reading it fresh or are you tired after reading countless others before it? Your answers to these questions will affect how you read these next 1,370 words. If my essay was at the top, I can safely assume that you are still reading every word. If it was at the bottom, you are probably losing intrest by now and didn't notice that I misspelled “interest” just then. Order matters. As a general rule, people pay more attention to things (and people) toward the beginning of lists and piles and less to things (and people) toward the end.

Unfortunately, with our Western obsession with alphabetical order, when people are arranged that way, the same neglected group finds itself at the end of nearly everything. This is a form of discrimination called alphabetism. About half of the population will probably dismiss this as nonsense, but the other half may be interested to hear what numerous scientists, psychologists, and sociologists have to say about how their position in the alphabet has affected their lives – from buying habits to career success.

According to Tony Wright, a former British Member of Parliament, “the phrase ‘alphabetical order' should send a chill through everyone in the country. It sounds fair, it sounds random, what it means is systematic discrimination against those at the bottom of the alphabet” (The ABC of Power). This may seem like an overstatement, but think about it: starting at a young age, schoolchildren are arranged in alphabetical order, and those near the end of the alphabet are last in line when the class eats snacks or tours the building, and last to choose topics and partners for school projects – every time.

In high school, students are arranged by seating charts, and the same kids sit in the back corner of the classroom, receiving less individual attention, until they graduate, and even then, the audience is usually making ZZZs by the time the last Z receives his or her diploma. In the workplace, when two or more people write a report, their names are listed in alphabetical order, regardless of who did more work. The same principle applies to programs for recitals, lists of conference speakers and job interviewees, and names on ballots. These alphabetized lists disadvantage the same group of people, those at the end of the alphabet.

With a last name that begins with a V, I can attest to this. I didn't know what chocolate milk tasted like until junior high, and I hardly ever got to choose anything at school. I would be stuck with whatever the other kids didn't want. The last one to present to my sleepy class, I always felt that I was somehow inferior because of my position in the alphabet.

Numerous beaming teachers told me “last but not least” when they steered me toward the back of the classroom or gave me that last beat-up textbook that every other kid had turned down – but I felt least. Even now, when other factors besides my place at the end of the alphabet determine my fate, I catch myself expecting to be last, letting other people cut in front of me when I try to leave a room or when I get in line for lunch. As numerous studies show, I am not alone in my submissive tendencies, and I am learning now that they may have been caused by our culture's subconscious treatment of people whose last names fall at the end of the alphabet.

“Expectation and Achievement in Lower Alphabet Groups,” a study conducted by Professors P. Young and R. Walters, two top sociologists at the City University of New York, highlights the long-term consequences of systematic alphabetic discrimination. Observing several hundred children over a 20-year period, they found that those with names toward the end of the alphabet got so used to being last on lists and in lines that they began to see themselves as having low priority and consequently placed a low value on themselves. The study found that in addition they had lower ambitions and expectations for their futures, expecting to get less out of life. As adults, their salaries were 16 percent below average, they held only a third of top management positions, and they were five times more likely to suffer depression or attempt suicide.

These are fairly drastic results of something seemingly so simple and innocent as lining kids up in alphabetical order. It is just an effort to organize, to make our lives a little more predictable, a little easier. Some sympathetic teachers occasionally line students up in reverse alphabetical order or randomize the list. But this is only done on special occasions. Why do kids at the end of the alphabet need a special occasion to experience the thrill of leading a line, an opportunity to be first, a chance to get first pick, when kids at the beginning of the alphabet are given these opportunities daily? Of course, this is coming from someone who spent her childhood at the back of the class. But think about it – how difficult would it be to mix it up every once in a while? How difficult would it be to keep the kids in alphabetical order but let them take turns in the front of the line or the classroom? If this does not happen, the effects of alphabetism will continue to affect people's behaviors and futures.

A concrete example of position in the alphabet affecting long term behavior is found in a study done by Kurt A. Carlson, assistant professor at Georgetown's McDonough School of Business, and Jacqueline M. Conard, assistant professor at Belmont University's Massey Graduate School of Business. They conducted four tests, all advertising a “while supplies last” offer, on both students and adults. In each experiment, subjects whose surnames fell toward the end of the alphabet responded more quickly to these offers than those whose surnames fell toward the beginning. This effect did not hold true with married names, only with the names respondents were born with, indicating that this behavioral pattern has roots in childhood. Carlson and Conard concluded that this happens because “repeated delays imposed on children whose last names are late in the alphabet create in those individuals a chronic expediency motive that is automatically activated.” In simpler terms, adults who were sorted toward the back of lines, lists, and classrooms as children are more likely to be suckered into act-now advertising because, growing up, they often experienced delays and can still remember how it felt to miss out on an opportunity.

Not only does position in the alphabet affect consumers' buying habits, but it also has a noticeable effect on people's future success in careers, whether business, politics, or economics. The world's three top central bankers – Greenspan, Duisenberg, and Hayami – along with the world's five richest men – Gates, Buffett, Allen, Ellison, and Albrecht – all have names in the top half of the alphabet, according to an article in The Economist. And of the 44 U.S. presidents to date, 31 had surnames in the first half of the alphabet.

Liran Einav, an assistant professor of economics at Stanford, and Leeat Yariv, an associate professor of economics at CalTech, found that faculty members with surnames earlier in the alphabet are more likely to receive tenure at top economics departments and are even more likely to receive the Clark Medal or the Nobel Prize. Other disciplines, such as psychology, medicine, and other “hard” sciences, do not rank their authors alphabetically, and, interestingly enough, do not show this same effect found in economists' papers, writes Timothy Noah in his article “Tyranny of the Alphabet” in Slate Magazine. Although there are some notable exceptions, like Mark Zuckerberg, there is no doubt that position in the alphabet has the ability to affect careers.

Alphabetism doesn't have to exist. It is simply a byproduct of an obsession with order. If children were always lined up by their parents' income, with the poorest children always at the end of the line, parents would be outraged. But when they are lined up by the first letter of their last names, hardly anyone bats an eye. Educators, as well as the political and scientific communities, need to be more aware of the effects of consistently arranging children in alphabetical order. Little Lawrence Zyskowski deserves the same chance for success in life as his classmate Phillip Aaberg.

This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.

This work has won the Teen Ink contest in its category. This piece won the October 2012 Teen Ink Nonfiction Contest.

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This article has 11 comments. Post your own now!

youjaes said...
today at 7:26 pm
As someone from the end of lines and the back corner of classrooms, I totally relate. I remember my 5th grade teacher once telling me to get up from the back corner and sit in the front row. My reply was, "Why, did I do something wrong?" And then there was college where the head of the math department said I was the best student she had ever seen and she'd been there for ten years. Why wasn't I at the top of the honor roll? My reply was, "Yes, I have a 4.0 GPA, but so did eleven other stude... (more »)
ambivalent This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. said...
May 31, 2016 at 7:08 pm
Whoa ... Never realized how far alphabetism can affect one's psycology. Good work.
dappled.sunlight This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. said...
Jan. 2, 2016 at 7:58 pm
Wow, this was so eye-opening! I love the way you presented this: logically and assuredly, with lots of examples and a little comedy. Great job!
celticstudygirl said...
Jun. 9, 2015 at 7:32 pm
I love this article. Even though my last name starts with a K I still kind of feel that way since in my classes I was in the bottom half a lot.
Purpleslurpie21 said...
Mar. 18, 2015 at 9:11 pm
This is really, really true. My last name begins with Sw, and I'm in a learning program that I spend the majority of my school day in, and I'm the last one. I am always in the very back corner allow with the gross squeaky desk that has gum under it. The first paragraph was just fabulous, and you taught me how to spell interest (I'm a terrible speller). Over all this is a fantastic piece, and I can't find anything wrong with it
KFT22 This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. said...
Aug. 11, 2014 at 12:37 am
Great first paragraph--caught my eye immediately. I never thought about the importance of alphabetism before so it was quite enlightening to read. In addition to having an interesting topic with equally interesting points, you write really well!
swiftiebookie14 said...
Oct. 18, 2013 at 10:44 pm
I love this.  My own last name starts with Y, and I always disliked always being last.  Whenever my teacher would read the list with names at the end of the alphabet last, I was always so excited because I would get to be first.  I can totally relate to this article and agree with every word you wrote.  I never really thought it was an actual issue, but knowing that it is has really changed my perspective on it.  Who knew that my last name could be the reason I'm so ... (more »)
iWriteForFood said...
Apr. 8, 2013 at 2:30 pm
This is really good! I never really thought about alphebetism before, but now that I do, I agree with you that it's everywhere! The funny thing is, my last name starts with a B, and as a kid, I rarely wanted to be the line leader.
Ender2 This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. said...
Mar. 1, 2013 at 7:18 pm
I was really interested in this piece. My last name, starting with an 'E' is at the first portion of the alphabet, yet still about average. This is how I place myself in my classes academically- about upper average. I seem to notice that those with last names starting in 'A' or 'B' are a tad snobby and those with 'Y' and 'Z' go unnoticed. Wonderful observations, and very well-written. Can't wait to read more of your work!
theatregirl This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. said...
Oct. 12, 2012 at 8:40 pm
As person with last name beginging with S, can relate. I remenber in kindergarten be the last preson to be the line leader every month (we rotate line leader, but i felt got be it) and alway having to present last in school program. Aphlabetical order is okay for files in cabinent or books in a library or for naming hurricanes. It not appriorate for organzing people
Imaginedangerous This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. said...
Oct. 7, 2012 at 8:24 pm
Wow. I've never really thought about it, but you are absolutely right. My name falls in the middle of the alphabet, and so whether a teacher goes A-Z or Z-A, I always know I'm in the middle. It's irritating sometimes, but I imagine it would be much worse if I was farther back (since, as you've so ably pointed out, A-Z is much more common).   And not only are you right, you also wrote this really well. The opening was really creative and definitely caught my att... (more »)
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