What’s in a name? A lot, apparently. New research suggests that your first name shapes the way other people perceive your age, personality, and how good you are at your job – and the findings could mean some classic psychology experiments were wrong.
Leonard Newman at Syracuse University in New York and his colleagues asked 500 college students to rate 400 popular male and female names from the last seven decades. Questions were framed in the form: “Imagine that you are about to meet Samantha. How competent/warm/old do you think she is when you see her name?”
When it came to warmth and competence, there was a clear gender effect. Names associated with low competence and high warmth tended to be female, like Hannah, Melody and Mia. Conversely, names associated with high competence and low warmth tended to be male, like Howard, Lawrence and Reginald. “The results reflected gender stereotypes,” says Newman.
From across the seven decades, some names were particularly associated with age – for example, Betty and Bruce were consistently perceived as older than Brittney and Brad. “If you give your child a fashionable name for the time, it might date them,” says Newman. “The only way around it is to choose a name that never seems to go out of style, like David or Michael.”
The findings have implications for psychological experiments, which often invoke fictional characters as part of hypothetical scenarios, says Newman. The names of these characters may skew the results, he says.
For example, a famous experiment conducted in the 1960s asked people to grade identical essays that were labelled “John” or “Joan”. Joan’s essay tended to be marked lower, which was held up as evidence of sexism. But because Joan is an older-generation name, it’s possible that people were in fact biased against her because of her perceived age rather than her sex, says Newman.
To find out for sure, researchers could repeat this experiment using comparable male and female names, like Jessica and Jason, which received similar ratings in the latest study, says Newman. If Jessica’s identical essay was still marked lower on average, that would be more compelling evidence of sexism, he says.
The latest research builds on earlier evidence of name biases. One study previously found that teachers graded essays more favourably if the student’s name was popular at the time, for example.
A recent survey of people attending a science festival in the UK found that people with royal names like Elizabeth, Caroline, James and Richard were perceived as more successful. It also found that names perceived as most attractive tended to be soft-sounding female names like Sophie, or short, sharp male names like Jack.
The fact that gender, and age all seem to affect name bias is depressing, but thankfully it isn’t always the whole story. An unpopular or unusual name doesn’t necessarily mean your destiny is sealed, says Newman. “Many years ago, my parents came to visit me in Chicago and I pointed out signs for a local politician who was running,” he says. “I told them, ‘he’s very appealing, he’s going to go far,’ and they laughed at me and said, ‘I don’t think he’ll go very far in American politics with a name like Barack Hussein Obama’. Obviously, they were wrong, and there are clearly more important things than names.”
Examples of names from the study are shown below:
Warm and competent names
Ann, Anna, Caroline, Daniel, David, Elizabeth, Emily, Emma, Evelyn, Felicia, Grace, James, Jennifer, John, Jonathan, Julie, Kathleen, Madeline, Mark, Mary, Matthew, Michael, Michelle, Natalie, Nicholas, Noah, Olivia, Paul, Rachel, Samantha, Sarah, Sophia, Stephen, Susan, Thomas, William
Warm but less competent names
Hailey, Hannah, Jesse, Kellie, Melody, Mia
Competent but less warm names
Arnold, Gerard, Herbert, Howard, Lawrence, Norman, Reginald, Stuart
Names of low warmth and competence
Alvin, Brent, Bryce, Cheyenne, Colby, Crystal, Dana, Darrell, Devon, Dominic, Dominique, Duane, Erin, Larry, Leslie, Lonnie, Malachi, Marcia, Marco, Mercedes, Omar, Regina, Rex, Roy, Tracy, Trenton, Vicki, Whitney