Speaking at a charity dinner a few weeks before the 2008 election, Barack Hussein Obama joked, “I got my middle name from somebody who obviously didn’t think that I’d run for President.”
Obama was referring to comments in the US media by pundits who had drawn attention to his full name in an attempt to paint him as un-American. In a country fearful of Islamic extremism, having a ‘Muslim’ middle name could be seen as a handicap. His surname – a letter away from the FBI’s most wanted terrorist – didn’t help either.
“The impact of names comes from how people expect to see you,” says Professor James Bruning from Ohio University. And while prejudging someone based on their name might seem unfair, we sometimes do so when making decisions. Bruning notes, for example, that those with an Oriental name are thought to be good at maths, so an employer looking to hire a computer programmer might push an application to the top of the pile if they see a Chinese name on the CV.
Names don’t just give away your ethnic background – Bruning says we also associate specific names with a person’s perceived ability to do a job, “Who would be a better American football player,” he asks, “someone whose name is Bronco or Colt, or someone named Francis or Percival?”
Such stereotyping, by ourselves as well as others, might explain why some people seem to have picked occupations that perfectly suit their name, a phenomenon dubbed ‘nominative determinism’. Record-breaking sprinter Usain Bolt is just one example of a ‘Mr Bun the Baker’ from the real world.
Even the letters of our name can have an influence on the career path we might choose to follow. According to psychologist Dr Brett Pelham, an analyst for statistics firm 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. “When I lived in LA, there was a dentist named Dennis Smiler – you can’t have a much better match than that!”
Pelham’s 2002 research paper entitled ‘Why Susie Sells Seashells by the Seashore’ describes how this ‘name-letter effect’ can influence our life choices. It’s an effect so far-reaching that it goes beyond alliteration (more seashell shops are owned by Sheryls than Cheryls) and can even influence where we’ll choose to live: women named Georgia are disproportionally more likely to move to the state of Georgia, and men called Louis are over-represented in Louisiana.
For the study, Pelham mined the archived census records from south-eastern US states. When he scrutinised marriage records, he also found that names can also affect who we’ll choose to wed – people with common surnames like Smith are more likely to marry another Smith than a Johnson.
The name-letter effect is caused by what Pelham calls ‘implicit egotism’. In other words, we’re all unconsciously attracted to things that remind us of ourselves – including the letters in our names. “If you notice even some fragment of your name, it catches your attention and creates a positive association for you,” says Pelham.
In one experiment, his team subliminally paired people’s names with a random number on a computer screen for 1/100th of a second. During this 70-second conditioning process, the participants were shown multiple name-number combinations. When they were later asked to evaluate a woman wearing an American football jersey, both male and female participants judged the woman more favourably when the number on her jersey corresponded to their name. “They’re completely unaware that that’s the basis for the preference,” says Pelham.
Names also hold the secret to success. In 2006, American economists looked at the link between surnames and academic prominence, finding that those with initials early in the alphabet were markedly more likely to work in prestigious university departments and win a Nobel Prize.
This ‘alphabetical discrimination’ was probably due to the fact that the authors of academic papers are often listed in alphabetical order. And as Professor Richard Wiseman from the University of Hertfordshire points out, we’re used to associating things at the top of a list as winners, “Over time, it wouldn’t surprise me if you had this psychological effect.”
Whether it’s being called for the school register or a job interview, people with the top names have got used to being first. To test this theory, Wiseman invited Telegraph readers to rate how successful they thought they were in assorted aspects of their life – including career, finances, health and ‘life in general’. The scores were then combined into an overall measure of success. 3
The 15,000 people who responded also provided their age, sex and surname. “We saw that the further down the alphabet your surname came, the less likely you were to be successful,” says Wiseman.
This bond between surname and perceived success was stronger in older age groups, which might be because past generations were more likely to have been ordered alphabetically in the classroom. “So it’s possible the As and Bs got more attention from the teacher or were simply better behaved because they were towards the front, and therefore got higher grades.”
Names can also make you more successful with the opposite sex. In another of Wiseman’s name experiments, 6000 members of the British public were asked to rate the 40 most popular first names for various qualities, including attractiveness, luck and success.
“For intelligence and success it was the royal names that came top – the Jameses and the Elizabeths,” says Wiseman. “This is one of those self-fulfilling prophecies: if you have a name which sounds intelligent or attractive, then you could be treated differently, or behave in a different way.”
Psychologists note that stereotypes tend to be shallow assumptions that are often wiped out once you find out more about someone or meet them in person. George may have come bottom of the list in the sexiness stakes, but few would see George Clooney as ugly.
Precisely why certain names are seen as more attractive is still unknown, but one guess is that they may be subtle cues as to masculinity or femininity. And whether a name sounds boyish or girly also affects success at school, says David Figlio, a professor of economics at Northwestern University in Illinois.
“Names such as Ashley started out as boys’ names but nowadays they’re popular girls’ names,” says Figlio, who studies the social consequences of names. His work has shown that boys with androgynous names tend to misbehave and become disruptive as soon as they hit high school. “A boy named Ashley gets teased and feels more self-conscious, particularly if there’s a girl with the same name in the class. They bring the test scores in their entire class down with them.”
This stereotyping might also dictate our occupations; girls with feminine-sounding names like Elizabeth are less likely to study science, meaning that the parents’ choice of name could send their daughter down a particular career path.
Figlio created linguistics software that assigns a ‘femininity score’ to names and tracked the school subjects chosen by 1000 pairs of sisters. The programme gives higher scores to names like Elizabeth, which contains several soft consonant sounds (‘z’ in the middle and ‘th’ at the end), and longer names (girls’ names tend to be longer).When you run these factors through the computer, names like Alex are rated as less feminine.
“Even if you limit it to only the girls who were performing in the top 15 per cent on US maths exams, Elizabeth is more likely to choose the humanities,” says Figlio, “and Alex would take advanced maths and science.” Success in school is another self-fulfilling prophecy, as stereotypes associated with feminine names are reinforced by society, including teachers, parents and even the girls themselves.
A poll of 3000 UK teachers found that almost half admitted imagining what new pupils would be like after seeing a new school register. Although this might be unsettling for parents to hear, it’s difficult to blame the teachers because many of their assumptions will be based on past experiences.
The survey revealed that a third of teachers claimed they could spot trouble in names like Callum, Crystal and Chardonnay, but also considered kids on such a ‘naughty list’ often to be bright, sensitive and more popular than those who were better behaved.
And while parents might want to give their children a distinctive label so that they stand out from the crowd, they should also consider the long-term psychological effects. A 1960s 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.
Unusual names convey a lot of other information too, such as social standing. “In the US, there are distinctively black names that signify higher classes, and names that might connote lower class,” says Figlio. Ebony, for instance, is sometimes given to girls by female university graduates, but rarely by mothers who drop out of school. Teachers pick up on this and treat children differently.
“Parents should give their children whatever name they want, but they need to recognise that names have consequences,” says Figlio. “Is a name a guaranteed ladder to success? Of course not. But can a name make your life a little bit easier? For sure.”
JV Chamary is reviews editor of Focus
Subscribe to Focus for your monthly dose of the very best in science and technology journalism, as well as free access to our award-winning iPad app. Click here to find out more.