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Do Your Initials Spell Earlier Death? New Pomona College Study Contradicts Previous Findings

A new study by Stilian Morrison ’05 and Professor Gary Smith has found that initials have no connection to mortality, contradicting earlier evidence that having a “bad” monogram, such as PIG or ZIT, makes one more likely to die at a younger age than someone blessed with initials such as ACE or VIP.

The original 1999 study, reported in the Journal of Psychosomatic Research, had found that males with positive initials lived 4.5 years longer than a control group of males with neutral initials, while males with negative initials lived 2.8 fewer years. The earlier study also found that females with positive initials lived 3.4 more years than those in the neutral group.

In the new study, published in the September/October 2005 issue of Psychosomatic Medicine, Morrison and Smith examined California death records from 1905 to 2005 to confirm whether a statistical relationship existed between initials and longevity.

Morrison and Smith asked a group of students, faculty and friends to rank the initials that they would be most happy and least happy to have. The top positive initials were ACE, ICE, JOY, VIP, CEO, GEM, FLY, FOX, HIP, WIT and WIN. The top negative initials included KKK, DIE, ZIT, PIG, DUM, RAT, SOB, GAS, BAD, HOR, BUM and SIN.

The researchers then analyzed mortality data of white, non-Hispanic people who died from 1960 to 2003 and for all races from 1905 to 1959. The records included 4,201 males with positive initials and 6,485 males with negative initials; 2,798 females with positive initials and 4,533 females with negative initials.

Grouping people by year of birth, Morrison and Smith compared average age of death. Males with negative initials lived slightly longer, on average, than those with positive initials, and the reverse was true for females, though neither difference was statistically significant.

Morrison and Smith attribute the new findings to grouping records by year of birth, rather than year of death, which they say can be misleading if the frequency of specific initial choices changes over time.

One problem with making such comparisons is how language useage and slang expressions change over time; 50 years ago, ICE and FLY were not considered compliments.

“We were inspired to conduct the study,” explains Smith, “because the claim of the seven-year difference in average age at death of people with good and bad initials seemed implausible. It shouldn’t be out there that if you give kids the initials LUV; they’ll live seven years longer. A little bit of statistical detective work, and we found the flaw.”

“Stilian and I used a survey to construct an independent list of positive and negative initials. We also used mortality simulations to show that average-age-at-death calculations for decedents grouped by death year can be misleading if the frequency of initials changes over time. Grouping decedents by birth year solves this problem and provides a more natural test of whether there is a statistical relationship between initials and longevity.”

Morrison, who is a mathematical economics major, began working with Smith at the end of his freshman year. “This study originated from my first statistics course at Pomona College and was a practical application of some of my early quantitative skill sets. It inspired me to take further courses related to statistical theory (such as probability) and its quantitative focus fuelled my interest in a concentration towards business and finance. Both the course and the resulting study enabled me to be more critical and questioning of statistical works, being wary of data mining as well as questionable models and hypotheses.”

Smith, who is the Fletcher Jones Professor Economics at Pomona College, is author of several economics textbooks and more than 50 articles. Among those are several papers, some co-authored with students, debunking various claims. Those include the claims that famous people can postpone theirs deaths until after their birthday; Jews can postpone their deaths until after Passover; elderly Chinese women can postpone their deaths until after the Harvest Moon festival; Chinese-Americans and Japanese Americans have abnormally high cardiac mortality on the 4th day of the month; and Chinese Americans born in fire years tend to die of heart disease. “All of these claims had fatal statistical flaws,” notes Smith.

Psychosomatic Medicine is the official journal of the American Psychosomatic Society and one of the most frequently cited journals in psychology and psychiatry. One reviewer found that Morrison and Smith’s article was “a valuable methodological contribution that may alert researchers to the need to carefully design issues and possible sources of bias that could lead to unfounded conclusions."

Pomona College, one of the nation’s premier liberal arts institutions, offers a comprehensive program in the arts, humanities, social sciences and natural sciences. Its hallmarks include small classes, close relationships between students and faculty, and a range of opportunities for student research.