How your name influences who you become

by Marc Wilson / 20 January, 2018

Photo/Getty Images

According to research, our names can influence how we develop and act.

I’ve never met a Duncan I liked. This is, of course, unfair, because I’ve probably met many likeable Duncans without realising it. It’s also quite possible that my early exposure to unlikeable Duncans means I pay attention only when I meet a not-nice one, and that then confirms the mental picture I’ve developed.

I also don’t remember meeting a lot of Duncans. I can tell you that Duncan has appeared among the top 100 boys’ names only six times in the past 60 years, specifically 1974 to 1979. This courtesy of our Department of Internal Affairs website.

On howmanyofme.com, you can find how common your name is in the United States, and here we learn there are “only” 11,412 Duncans. That’s a lot, but that country has a large population, and therefore Duncan is the 1798th-most-popular name. Apparently, “more than 99.9% of people with the first name Duncan are male”. In case you were wondering.

I mention names because my 13-year-old was watching the web show Great Mythical Morning, as he does every day. This morning, hosts Rhett and Link were trying to guess people’s first names from their photographs. More specifically, they were trying to guess which of a set of names they thought was most likely to be that of the person in the photo. One of them was actually named Celery (“There are fewer than 1630 people in the US with the first name Celery,” thanks howmanyofme). Rhett (2397th-most-popular) and Link (Lincoln is 1684th) were surprisingly good at guessing.

This isn’t a surprise, however, because these guys were inspired by research at Hebrew University in Jerusalem that showed something similar. Over a series of studies, the researchers showed that people (and computers) can “guess” which of five names is most likely to be that of the target person at above-chance accuracy. By “above-chance”, we’re not talking particularly accurate, however – about three times in 10, but statistically better than the two-in-10 you’d expect with five choices and chance-level guessing.

Intriguingly, the authors also had a go at training a computer to guess names from faces. You do this by getting a large database of names and faces, then “teaching” the computer to name-guess. Basically, the computer starts at chance-level and slowly builds a set of decision rules for when not to pick Duncan and when to pick Duncan. To the point, the researchers note, that it’s more than 50% accurate at picking which of 15 common names are most likely for a set of thousands of photos. The most relevant information for name-matching, it appears, is the eyes.

So, how does this work? It’s suggested that our names influence how we “develop”. The researchers argue that Daisy is more likely to dress and act in a feminine manner because there is a stereotype of femininity that goes with the name Daisy, but not with the diminutive Chris (which can be derived from either Christopher or Christine/Christina). Daisy internalises this stereotype and becomes and acts more Daisy-like. Not perfectly Daisy-like, of course, or the hit rate would be higher than three-in-10.

The other thing, it seems to me, that will be important is not just the broader social norms, but also family socialisation experiences. If you’re the kind of parents who name their child Daisy, then you’ll have your own reasons for doing so and your own expectations of what that means. When I think of Daisy, I think of a blonde woman wearing a floral dress in a field. If I have a child I name Daisy, this will affect how I raise her. Parents often agonise over names for their child, and this kind of validates their concern and effort.

And Marc? It’s 445th most common in America. Good thing it’s not a competition.

This article was first published in the December 9, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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