The influence of poor and great names
We don't choose the names we carry, but they have an immense and often hidden effect on our lives. Your name can either help or hinder you professionally and has an undoubtable influence on your life. Though we don't choose them, our names are badges bearing information about our class, education level, and ethnic origin - or at least those of our parents. Scientific studies have shown that the world makes different assumptions about a boy named Tyrone than it does about one named Philip, and while those assumptions are often wrong, they can have a considerable influence on the course of a life. A name can even exert unconscious influence over a person's own choices. Some scientific researchers contend that there are disproportionately large numbers of dentists named Dennis and lawyers named Lauren, and that it's not purely an accident that Dr. Douglas Hart chose cardiology or that the Greathouse family of West Virginia runs a real-estate firm. The Romans had the expression nomen est omen, or "name is destiny."
A person's name can affect their life well into adulthood
It certainly seems unfair, but names create expectations that powerfully influence a child's development.
• Studies have found that a résumé submitted under a name perceived as unusual, such as Lakesia Washington, gets less attention from potential employers than the identical résumé bearing a more common name, like Mary Ann Roberts.
• A recent Australian study found that people tend to have better impressions of co-workers and political candidates whose names they can pronounce easily.
• In situations where the name is all that is known, people with common first names fare better than those with unique ones. Nonetheless, in this era of individual self-expression, many parents view commonplace names like Thomas or Jane as boring and uncreative. "For some parents, picking out a baby name is like curating the perfect bookshelf or outfit," said Slate.com. "It should telegraph refinement, exclusivity, and uniqueness." Aiden, one of the most popular boy's names in the US over the last seven years, has now lost the exclusivity that made it attractive to many parents.
• Studies have determined that kids with unusual variations on a common name are slower to spell and read, which “suggests a lot about internalizing," A researcher at Northwestern University says, “You have the child named Jennifer spelled with a ‘G' - her teacher says, ‘Are you sure your name is spelled that way?' That can be incredibly hard on a person's confidence."
• In another study, he found that girls with more feminine names were more likely to take advanced classes in humanities, while those with male names like Morgan tended toward math and science.
• Meanwhile, boys with “girl" names like Shannon and Ashley were more likely to develop disciplinary problems, probably because of anger resulting from teasing and self-consciousness.
• Perhaps most troubling is that kids with odd names that sound “ghetto" or “poor" do worse in school, are less likely to be recommended for gifted classes, and are more likely to be pegged as learning disabled - even if they come from middle-class homes. “Those kids ended up being treated differently.
• Whether a name sounds boyish or girly can affect success at school, according to David Figlio, a professor of economics at Northwestern University. His work has shown that boys with names that could also be girls' names tend to misbehave and become disruptive as soon as they hit high school.
• A study of psychiatric records found that those with unusual names were more likely to be diagnosed psychotic, while recent research has shown that boys with the least popular names are more likely to commit crime.
• According to psychologist Dr. Brett Pelham, an analyst for Gallup, people have a tendency to follow professions that resemble their first names, meaning that lawyers called Laura and dentists named Dennis are especially common.
• Research indicates that people are unconsciously drawn to things, people, and places that sound like their own names. Psychologists call this phenomenon "implicit egotism." Psychiatrist Carl Jung noted that his colleague Sigmund Freud (German for "joy") advocated the pleasure principle, Alfred Adler ("eagle") the will to power, and he himself ("young") the "idea of rebirth."
• A controversial 2007 study cited implicit egotism as the reason why students whose names began with a C or a D had lower grade point averages than those with names beginning with an A or a B; students gravitate to grades, the study argued, that reflect their own beloved initials.
Sounds we hear as babies make an impact
Our name is one of the first words we hear repeated. The sound of the letters and syllables have impact. Crisp, sharp solid sounds sound strong, together, and confident. Soft mellow sounds are sweet. Unusual pairs are awkward and a bit annoying.
Names influence perceptions
We have preconceived notions about names. Which ballerina do you think is more graceful - Bertha or Anastasia? Mildred or Allison? Names may influence how we perceive ourselves and others because of racial, class, or geographical stereotypes. Anastasia conjures up qualities like attractive, graceful, and sophisticated; descriptors that don't fit a Bertha.
• Vanna is considered dumb, Jacqueline is elegant, and Jacob is religious, old-fashioned, and quiet. Some other research findings:
• In callbacks by interviewers, Bambi, Tiffany, and Lashonda did not fare very well, even though resume content was identical to those names that were deemed more marketable.
• Ethel, Harriet, and Gertrude scored worse on tests, but would earn higher pay - we perceive that they are more serious and competent. Kathy, Jennifer, and Christine scored higher but would earn lower pay.
• Jimmy Carter would have been taken more seriously as president if he had gone by Jim, and even more if he had gone by James. A president of the United States named Jimmy?
William Shakespeare wrote, "What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet." Maybe, but our perception of aroma from said flower would likely be influenced by its name.
A complicated name could have a negative effect on your professional standing. A 2012 study led by Eryn Newman from Victoria University in New Zealand shows that the easier your name is to pronounce, the more trustworthy people will assume you are. And the reverse is also true - the more complicated your name is, the more untrustworthy you will seem. Newman explains that when we encounter new information, how easy or difficult it is to process plays an important role. "From other research, we know that people think that food additives with easier names are safer than those with difficult names. So we don't think it is a stereotype about foreign names," Newman says. "Instead, we think that the easy names just feel more familiar or easy to process than the difficult names. To the Fred Flintstone parts of our brains, that feeling of ease or familiarity signals something that we can trust, but information that's difficult to process signals danger."
Previous studies have shown that people with more familiar names tend to be rated as more likeable, are preferred as mock election candidates, and hold higher positions. Our hidden biases have the potential to affect many aspects of our daily lives, both professional and personal. "In the work force, it might affect which CVs out of a giant pile float to the top, and in the news or politics, certain messages may carry more weight if attributed to an easy name," explains Newman. One study in particular found that immigrants to the United States who had changed their names to better blend into their new environment - for example, by changing the Russian name "Artyom" to the more American-sounding "John" - fared better in the job market and achieved higher incomes than those who stuck with their native names.
But, "names only have a significant influence when that is the only thing you know about the person," says psychologist Dr. Martin Ford. "Add a picture, and the impact of the name recedes. Add information about personality, motivation, and ability, and the impact of the name shrinks to minimal significance." Condoleezza Rice's name might have held her back, but she was so smart, talented, and driven that she became secretary of state. On the other hand, there are people like Sue Yoo of Los Angeles, who grew up with people telling her, "Oh my god, that's your name, you should totally become a lawyer." Today she's an attorney. "Psychologically," she says, her name probably "helped me decide to go in that direction."
Your name can affect your life trajectory. Sometimes making life easier, but sometimes challenging you to overcome.