Thursday, May 19, 2011

Initial leanings: When names become destiny

Have you ever noticed that a person's name resembles their profession, their significant other's name, or some other important aspect of their life? For example, Amelia Earhart (pronounced air-heart) was a famous aviatrix, Mark Shuttleworth was the second space tourist, and Anna Smashnova was a tennis pro (see this wikipedia page for more examples). If you are an academic, you may also have noticed this phenomenon in the topics that researchers choose to study. You may even see it happen in your own life, but you will most likely write it off as a meaningless coincidence. No one wants to think that their most important decisions are guided by something as arbitrary as the letters or phonetics of their name. But research suggests that our names may indeed lead us to choose particular paths, or at least nudge us in one direction over another, without our awareness.

In an aptly named research article, Why Susie Sells Seashells by the Seashore: Implicit Egotism and Major Life Decisions, Brett Pelham and colleagues (2002) tested the hypothesis that Susie is unconsciously drawn to activities and locations starting with the letter S. The authors refer to this tendency as implicit egotism, the idea that people have positive associations with anything that is associated with themselves - in this case, their names. When this article was published, previous research had already established that people prefer their initials to other letters, but no one knew whether this preference had real-world implications. Drawing on broad-sweeping census data, the researchers found that people were more likely to move to locations that sounded like their first or last name - for example, more Georgia's moved to Georgia, and Louise's to Louisiana, than to other states. They also found that people seemed to choose professions in the same way - for example, Dennis's seemed especially drawn to the dental profession: in their sample the names Dennis, Walter, and Jerry were roughly equal in frequency, but 482 dentists were named Dennis compared to only 257 named Walter and 270 named Jerry.

The researchers concluded that our decisions are far less rational than we like to believe - even our own names can unconsciously prime us. Of course, these results do not suggest that all Dennis's are destined to become dentists (some surnames did once correspond to occupation and geographical region, but for the most part that is no longer the case). There are clearly many other important factors that influence our decisions, both conscious and unconscious. Furthermore, the strength of the name-preference effect may also depend on people's level of self-esteem - it is possible (though as yet untested) that people who dislike themselves show a reverse pattern of behavior. Though one set of studies found that names do not seem to influence food, animal, and leisure activity preferences, other studies show that name-based preferences can also influence social judgments and consumer decisions, though the effect may depend on the presence of certain situational factors, such as a moderate level of need (e.g., thirst when choosing a beverage). Implicit egotism also appears to be stronger for people with rare names. For more on this area of research, see this review article.

Parents often choose names for their children in hopes that their children will live up to these names, but names can sometimes set up expectations that are hard to live up to, as in the famous story of Winner and Loser Lane - poor Winner became a criminal while Loser grew up to be a successful policeman. In other cases, however, a successful-sounding name can serve a people well. What about names that signal ethnic background? Disturbingly, some research shows that equal quality resumes with traditional white sounding names, as opposed to minority or immigrant names, are more likely to lead to job interviews. Other research has found little evidence that names themselves do not influence life opportunities, but rather that early life circumstances shape both names and later life outcomes. However, employment discrimination in controlled studies such as the one referenced above cannot be explained by early life circumstances, since the resume names were randomly given an ethnicity. Perhaps some employers infer applicants' life circumstances from their names and discriminate based on those judgments, but that would make life circumstances more of a consequence than a cause.

Research suggests that the uniqueness of first names also plays a role in determining life outcomes. Some of this research suggests that unique names can be detrimental, compromising academic achievement, though other findings suggest otherwise - one older study found that that high school students with unusual names were more likely to be later found in Who's Who (a publication that lists "the best known men and women in all lines of reputable achievement." Maybe this is why celebrities often name their children bizarre names, like Moon Unit and Pilot Inspektor. Just as in other parts of our lives, we have needs for both positive distinctiveness and relatedness/ belonging when it comes to our names. Especially in Western cultures, we want to stand out - but not so much that we don't fit in. It also turns out that having a last name that starts with a late-alphabet letter makes people more impatient and quick to respond, presumably because these individuals spent their childhood being last in line.

Another source of influence lies in the personal and cultural meaning of a name. People may feel pressure to live up to their familial, literary, celebrity, or biblical name-sakes. They may also choose to change their name if it doesn't feel fitting. Would it be better if we could all choose our own names when we reached a certain age, so that we could have more say in our name-shaped destinies? My friends and I have discussed the names we think we could have given ourselves as children, and there were some strange ones - so maybe it's a good thing we stuck to just naming our dolls and stuffed animals.

There is so much more to say about names - the origins of nicknames (and their perseverance against all odds), the sometimes awkward transition to the "adult" form of one's name, the kinship of meeting someone with the same name (one example: the new co-authored novel Will Grayson, Will Grayson), the influence of having a typically male name as a female, or vice versa, and the complicated process of baby-naming. I will try to cover some of these topics in a future post, so please let me know what else you want to know about.

I realize that my fascination with names is probably in part due to my own weird name, whose origin is as confusing as its pronunciation (it's pronounced You-Lee, spelled Juli). I'm not sure if having a weird name has helped or hurt me - at certain times I liked being different (and it's always a good conversation starter), but it's not fun having to correct people's pronunciation. As for whether implicit egotism has led me to seek out locations that remind me of myself: I chose to go to college in Ann Arbor (and my full name is Juliana - not sure if that counts). Then I chose to go to grad school in Berkeley (and my last name starts with a B). My field of study, psychology, doesn't seem to resemble my name, except that my last name has some "brain"-likeness (that would work better if I were a neuroscientist). Although it's strange to think that my name alone could have altered my life, it seems to have led me to good places.

Pelham BW, Mirenberg MC, & Jones JT (2002). Why Susie sells seashells by the seashore: implicit egotism and major life decisions. Journal of personality and social psychology, 82 (4), 469-87 PMID: 11999918

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