What's in a Name?
What your name says about you (and how it says it).
Posted Jul 13, 2012
“Your first name’s white, your second is Hispanic, and your third belongs to a black. No wonder you don’t know who you are.” So reads an article in this week’s Sports Illustrated, quoting a former teammate talking to baseball Hall of Famer Reginald Martinez Jackson. Or Reggie Jackson as you probably know him.
Just ask the fish merchant whose stroke of naming genius turned the undesirable Patagonian toothfish into the haute cuisine Chilean sea bass.
Think about the debate surrounding which is the more appropriate terminology, “illegal immigrant” versus “undocumented worker.”
Or ponder for a moment the raping and pillaging conjured up by “music piracy” as opposed to the parking-ticket-like language of “copyright violation.”
And, indeed, when it comes to specific people, names come chock full of information as well. As the Reggie Jackson example illustrates, whether we admit it or not, when we see a name we draw conclusions about a variety of characteristics, including demographics like race.
Take, for example, a study economists conducted a few years ago in which they sent out thousands of résumés to job openings in Boston and Chicago. At random, some résumés were given a “White-sounding” first name, like Emily or Greg. Others were given a “Black-sounding” name, like Lakisha or Jamal. Those résumés with a White-sounding name prompted 50% more callbacks from potential employers.
The fact that we jump to such conclusions is one thing. But that these assumptions also have consequences is even more noteworthy. After all, the job résumé study isn’t compelling simply because we learn from it that some names seem “Whiter” or “Blacker” than others. It’s important because of the downstream consequences—because even if they had no intent (or conscious awareness) of doing so—HR directors and others screening these résumés do so differently when reading a “White” versus “Black” name.
Now we add to this body of evidence regarding the impact of names new research published in May’s Journal of Experimental Social Psychology by a team of researchers from Australia, Belgium, and the U.S. No, it’s not as sobering a set of findings as those regarding racial disparity in hiring tendencies, but it serves as yet another example of how factors we don’t think of color how we see and interact with each another.
Specifically, the researchers examined what they refer to as the name-pronunciation effect. The idea is that people with easier-to-pronounce names tend to be evaluated more positively than people with harder-to-pronounce names. Or, as they write in the subtitle of their paper, why people like Mr. Smith more than Mr. Colquhoun.
How to account for these findings? Well, it wasn’t simple familiarity; how common a name is did not significantly alter the results. Neither did the perceived ethnicity of the surnames. Of course, both of these factors can influence us too, but they weren't what drove the differences in the reported studies.
Rather, the observed effects seem to be attributable to pronunciation—when a name rolls off the tongue, at an implicit level we associate more positive sentiment with it. It’s a finding consistent with previous research showing that the ease, or fluency, with which we perceive something changes our impressions of it. The harder it is for us to come up with examples of a concept the less likely we are to believe it. In fact, simply seeing a fact written in a difficult-to-read font/background color combination makes us less likely to think that it’s true, a finding worth bearing in mind next time you’re crafting a Powerpoint presentation. We assume that easy = true.
So it goes with people as well. Poor Mr. Colquhoun. He never stood a chance.
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