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.

Latest

A big science investment - but where’s the transparency?
99199 2018-11-17 00:00:00Z Tech

A big science investment - but where’s the transpa…

by Peter Griffin

An extra $420m is being pumped into the National Science Challenges - but the reasoning behind the increased investment won't be released.

Read more
NZ music legend Gray Bartlett has a new album – and a wild past
99182 2018-11-16 13:32:58Z Music

NZ music legend Gray Bartlett has a new album – an…

by Donna Chisholm

We revisit this profile on award-winning guitarist Gray Bartlett, who's just released a new album, Platinum!

Read more
Vint Cerf: The father of the Internet reflects on what his creation has become
99178 2018-11-16 13:13:08Z Tech

Vint Cerf: The father of the Internet reflects on …

by Peter Griffin

"We were just a bunch of engineers trying to make it work. It didn't even occur to us that anybody would want to wreck it," says Vint Cerf.

Read more
Win a double pass to the NZ premiere screening of Mary Queen of Scots
99165 2018-11-16 10:51:28Z Win

Win a double pass to the NZ premiere screening of …

by The Listener

Starring Academy Award nominees Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie, Mary Queen of Scots explores the turbulent life of the charismatic Mary Stuart.

Read more
Goodside: The North Shore’s new food precinct
99155 2018-11-16 09:33:23Z Auckland Eats

Goodside: The North Shore’s new food precinct

by Alex Blackwood

North Shore residents will have plenty to choose from at Goodside.

Read more
The death of Radio Live
99147 2018-11-16 06:54:48Z Radio

The death of Radio Live

by Colin Peacock

14 years after launching “the new voice of talk radio”, MediaWorks will silence Radio Live. Mediawatch looks at what could replace it.

Read more
Should Lime scooters stay or should they go?
99103 2018-11-16 00:00:00Z Social issues

Should Lime scooters stay or should they go?

by The Listener

For every safety warning, there’ll be a righteous uproar about the public good regarding the environment. It's about finding the right balance.

Read more
Kiwi drama Vermilion is hamstrung by a frustrating lack of clarity
98992 2018-11-16 00:00:00Z Movies

Kiwi drama Vermilion is hamstrung by a frustrating…

by James Robins

Academic and film-maker Dorthe Scheffmann has had a hand in some of New Zealand cinema’s most beloved movies. So what went wrong?

Read more