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Race and Ethnicity

What's in a Name?

What your name says about you (and how it says it).

“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.

Names matter. Whenever we hear one, we draw a wide range of assumptions about the individual person (or item) in question.

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.

It’s not just race, either. Think of how surprised you’d be to learn that a Dylan or a Madison was 50+ years-old, or that Ethel or Sheldon were actually young children.

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.

Across a series of experiments, the researchers found evidence to support the name-pronunciation effect. For example, respondents gave more positive evaluations to political candidates with easy-to-say names than they did to the same candidates when given harder-to-say names. The results go beyond hypothetical elections: the researchers also selected a random sample of U.S. law firms and found that attorneys with more easily pronounceable names (as rated by coders blind to study hypothesis) tended to hold higher status positions within the firm hierarchy.

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.


Like this post? Then check out the website for Sam's book, Situations Matter: Understanding How Context Transforms Your World (now available!). You can also follow Sam on Facebook here and on Twitter here. Catch Sam's recent TEDx talk on the power of context here or below:

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