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How your name might influence what people think about you

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I've been thinking a lot about names lately - what they mean, what they project, what kinds of assumptions people make when they hear a name. So I decided to call up some experts and ask them: what's in a name?

High-status vs low-status names

David Figlio directs the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University. He's an economist by training, but most of his research operates at the intersection between economics, sociology and developmental psychology. Almost all his research deals with these two questions:

  • Why do we see such persistent disparate outcomes for children across different walks of life?
  • How are differences in advantage or disadvantage perpetuated from generation to generation?

One answer, Figlio argues, has to do with names. For his study, Figlio looked at two million Florida birth certificates over a decade. He ran the names through a fancy algorithm that broke every name into 1,400 linguistic components, and eventually he was able to predict - based solely on the child's name - whether the child was born to a mom who was poorly educated or not.

Here's how Figlio described his algorithm to the New York Times' John Tierney:

Dr. Figlio looked at the effect of names associated with low socioeconomic status. Here’s how he identifies those names: "Four frequent attributes of low socioeconomic status names are particularly striking: (1) the name begins with one of a number of prefixes, such as “lo-“, “ta-“, and “qua-“; (2) the name ends with one of a number of suffixes, such as “-isha” and “-ious”; (3) the name includes an apostrophe; and (4) the name is particularly long, with several low-frequency consonants. The easiest way to characterize this fourth characteristic is to count the number of “Scrabble” points of the name—I consider a name to have a high Scrabble score if its Scrabble value exceeds twenty points."
The more of these attributes a name, Dr. Figlio reports, the more likely the child is to be born to a high school dropout mother, a teenaged mother, unmarried parents, and an impoverished family.

And here’s why that matters.

"Imagine two kids," says Figlio, "one kid with a name that sounds like it was given by a college-graduate mom and another with a name that sounds like it was given by a high-school dropout mom. The teachers are more likely, all else equal, to recommend the first kid with the name that sounds like it was given by a college-graduate mom as 'gifted,' and the teacher was likely, all else equal, to recommend the kid with the high-school dropout mom as 'learning disabled.'"

In other words, teachers subconsciously treated kids differently depending on their name.

Turns out juvenile court judges do, too. Figlio found that judges are likely to deal more harshly with a kid if they have a name that signifies low-income status.

And the name studies just keep on coming

There are tons of name studies out there: studies about what happens when you send out identical resumes with black names and white names at the top; studies about how boys with girls names tend to act out more; studies about how women with traditionally feminine names are more likely to go into the humanities than the hard sciences.

You'll also find studiesthat say names don't tip the scales one way or another. But NYU professor Adam Altersays "it's hard to argue that they don’t have some effect," however small.

In Alter's new book "Drunk Tank Pink: And Other Unexpected Forces that Shape How We Think, Feel, and Behave" he talks about a name study he did which looked at how easily pronounceable names are, or what he calls "fluent" names, and he found that people with fluent names were better liked. And that's not all. Alter says "politicians with fluent names, even with the same basic policy platforms...were preferred to politicians with complex names."

He also looked at the performance of lawyers in law firms and how quickly they progressed up the ladder to become partners. Using all white, male names (first and last), Alter found that those lawyers with fluent names "tended to progress up the hierarchy more quickly."

So are names destiny? No, but...

Both Adam Alter and David Figlio agree that your parents’ socioeconomic background is more important than any name you’re given in terms of future success in life.

Still, for children in poverty, the odds are already stacked against them. So Alter says it's "unfortunate" but he would "have to suggest, all else being equal, if you pick a name that is associated with higher socioeconomic status, people will make assumptions that are probably more favorable as far as your child is concerned."

Jennifer is a reporter with Michigan Radio's State of Opportunity project. She previously covered arts and culture for the station, and worked as a producer for WFUV in the Bronx.
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