Will you send your daughter through life with a safe and popular name like Sophie or Emma? Or do you want her to stand out with a less common name such as Leilani or Valentina? There’s often an immense amount of obsessing that goes into choosing a child’s name, consulting the various lists, trying out the alternatives on friends and relatives, and probably a marital debate or two, before a couple finally reaches this decision. 

The question of whether to pick a popular or unpopular name heads up the list of issues to obsess over. According to some fascinating research by Michael Varnum and Shinobu Kitayama, your choice is likely to reflect whether you abide in a frontier region — such as Montana, British Columbia, or New Zealand, or a longer-settled area, such as Massachusetts, Ontario, or Austria. 

Wolf versus David

Back in 1977, we debated between two names for our son: Wolf vs. David. If we’d named him Wolf, he’d certainly have stood out. But having grown up with a name that was uncommon in my neighborhood (where everyone was named Tom, John, Michael, or Joe), I lobbied to give him a nice popular name. So we went with Dave. The Social Security Administration keeps a website where I was able to check the most popular names by state and year, and it turns out that David was the sixth most popular in the state where he was born. So the goal of nominally fitting in was accomplished.

Twenty-five years later I had a second son, and I thought maybe I was being a little more risqué, by naming him Liam. That year, Liam did not make the top 100 list, so that was also a good call. For better or worse, though, Liam had jumped up to the second most popular name in Arizona last year! 

Frontier cultures

Varnum and Kitayama hypothesized that the decision about whether to give your child a more or less popular name would reflect a particular aspect of your cultural background — whether you lived in a place on the frontier or not. Kitayama is a prominent cultural psychologist who has been influential in exploring the distinctions between Asian “collectivist” and North American “individualist” societies.  He has also developed a related theory that he calls the “voluntary settlement hypothesis.” The central idea of the voluntary settlement hypothesis is that frontier conditions attract people who are especially independent, open to experience, and less conforming.

The researchers thought that perhaps the names we choose for our children are one reflection of the extent to which we are inclined to conform and fit in, as opposed to blazing a more independent and individualist path.  

Naming Customs from Austria to New Zealand

To test their frontier-naming idea, they first consulted the Social Security Administration’s database for children’s names in the United States in 2007. They compared the percentage of kids given popular names in the New England region (originally settled by European immigrants three or four centuries ago) and in the Mountain and Pacific West (which were only recently settled).  Indeed, they found a negative correlation between the use of popular names and the year in which a state was originally settled. Boys were especially likely to get unique names in the later-settled Northwestern states, whereas they were generally more likely to get common names in the early-settled Northeast.

In a second study, they compared provinces in Canada, and found the same trend: more recently settled Western provinces such as Alberta and British Columbia had more unique names, whereas earlier settled Eastern provinces such as Ontario and Nova Scotia had relatively more popular names.   

Finally, they compared European countries (such as Austria, Denmark, England, and Spain) with frontier countries that had been more recently settled by Europeans (Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United States). Again, people who lived back in the European countries used proportionally more common names than those living in the frontier countries. 

Looking back on my own parental decisions, my decision to name my first son David suggests that, as a native New Yorker, I had not yet adopted the pioneer spirit of Montana, where he was born. In true Mountain West individualist spirit, though, he claims he’d have been happy if I’d named him Wolf instead.

Incidentally, of 555,000 babies recorded by Babycenter in 2013, the ten most popular boy’s names were: Jackson, Aiden, Liam (!), Lucas, Noah, Mason, Jayden, Ethan, Jacob, Jack.

David is way down at number 50, and Douglas is still not on the list.

For girls, the most popular were: Sophia, Emma, Olivia, Isabella, Mia, Ava, Lily, Zoe, Emily, Chloe. So, if you’re living in Massachusetts, those are the ones to choose, in Alaska, you may want to avoid them, or end up seeming like some prim and proper New Englander. 

Douglas Kenrick is author of The rational animal: How evolution made us smarter than we think. and of Sex, Murder, and the Meaning of Life: A psychologist investigates how evolution, cognition, and complexity are revolutionizing our view of human nature.  


Babycenter: 100 Most popular baby names of 2013

Social Security Administration Popular Names by State

Varnum, M. E. W., & Kitayama, S. (2011). What's in a name?  Popular names are less common on frontiers. Psychological Science, 22, 176-183

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