The Surprising Psychology of Baby Naming

... and the way just the sound of a name can resonate throughout a child's life.

Posted Apr 30, 2016

tmcphotos/Shutterstock
Source: tmcphotos/Shutterstock

The naming of a baby is one of the most difficult, feared, and potentially impactful decisions parents make. You will spend your own life with the name that your parents decided was best for you, and should you have children, they will experience the same fate.

Because the naming of a child is fraught with so much importance, parents will consult any resource they can get their hands on. They will share various options for friends and family to weigh in on, and can engage in weeks if not months of soul-searching. A favorite grandmother seems like a good choice, but could that insult other extended family members? Do you name a child after someone still alive? Should you avoid common names, to give your child a distinct identity? Should you go with what is popular—so your child will blend in—or use a moniker that is your family’s traditional go-to name for its kids? (Using a common family name can make get-togethers a bit confusing if three people answer to the same name, but it can also give the family its own sense of cohesion.)

You may or may not like the name you received at birth and if so, you may choose to call yourself something completely different or to use your middle name if you like it better. However, if you feel your name “fits” you well, you might conduct a thought experiment in which you imagine your name was something different.

[Last names present their own set of issues, especially when couples must grapple with the question of who, if anyone, is going to change his or her name. But you might decide to pick your own last name from between that of you or your partner (or a hyphenated variety) based on how it seems to “go” with your first name. Either way, your first name most likely won’t be the one to change.]

The choice of a name also reflects, in the majority of cases, whether a child is male or female. Parents will consult distinct lists for girls and boys, perhaps focusing on resources from their own ethnic or religious tradition. Parents may wish to make it clear that the child is one or the other biological sex or keep the name gender-neutral. They may also try to pick a name that will help their child get ahead in the world by emulating a famous person or trying to have the name conjure up a powerful image. A pop media icon may inspire parents to hope that their children will have the same qualities, and so they’ll use that name.

Whether they focus on it or not, parents are making a choice that will have long-term consequences for their child—because there is, in fact, a psychology behind name choice.

According to Columbia University’s Michael Slepian and Adam Galinsky (2016), male and female names differ in fundamental ways based on how they are pronounced. In an intensive series of studies, Slepian and Galinsky set out to determine the nature of this meaning. They began with the question of whether the actual way we pronounce a name influences whether we associate it with maleness or femaleness. To understand this question, you need to grasp the difference between a “voiced” and an “unvoiced” phoneme. (A phoneme is the smallest unit of speech.) You can learn what this is by placing your finger on your Adam’s apple and then speaking the word “this” and the word “thin.” The “th” sound in “this” is voiced, which you can determine by noticing that you feel a vibration. The “th” in “thin” is unvoiced, which you will also be able to determine by noticing that you feel no vibration at all. “Bear” and “pear” differ in similar ways.

Now that you’ve grasped this distinction, let’s move on to the next assumption the Columbia University team made: Names with voiced phonemes, they argue, have a harder or harsher sound. Names with an unvoiced phoneme have a softer sound. Because male/female stereotypes associate hardness with maleness and softness with femaleness, it then follows that, for many listeners, names with initial voiced phonemes will be more likely to be names that parents give to boys. Names with initial unvoiced phonemes, the “softer” ones, will be more likely to be female.

Not all names fit this phoneme rule—Rachel has a voiced initial phoneme, for example, but Timothy does not. One study the Slepian and Galinsky study reported gathered a whopping 270,000,000 names (that’s 270 million) from birth records in the U.S. from 1937 to 2013. Sorting the names into 78,286 different unique names of only one gender, and coding them according to whether the initial phoneme was voiced or unvoiced, produced a highly significant gender effect. It didn’t really matter how they sliced the names; the study authors produced a reliable effect for the hard/soft, male/female name distinction.

Moving on from there, the next question became one of finding out whether making up completely new names would produce the same effect. These novel names showed the same voicing effect. Asking a new sample of participants to rate the hardness or softness of the invented names (in terms of associations) showed that voiced names did seem harder than unvoiced names. The hard names also, in another study, turned out to seem more masculine to listeners. (The same effects appeared when the study took place in India with Indian names.) Finally, and perhaps most telling, people who themselves endorsed gender stereotypes were most likely to make the hard/soft, male/female association with the novel names.

As if the job of coming up with a child's name wasn’t difficult enough, the results of this study make clear that it’s potentially even more complicated than you imagined. Not only will you be setting your children up for a possible lifetime of teasing; you’ll also be influencing whether they conform to a gender stereotype, especially in those prone to gender stereotyping. As the authors conclude:

“We might find…even that having voiced versus unvoiced names might have implications for life outcomes (as has been found for easy vs. difficult to pronounce names)” (p. 525).

If you've always hated your name, maybe now you better understand why. And if you’re trying to avoid the same fate for your child, taking into account a name's sound, and its gendered associations, may be one important factor to add to your equation.

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Reference

Slepian, M. L., & Galinsky, A. D. (2016). The voiced pronunciation of initial phonemes predicts the gender of names. Journal of Personality And Social Psychology, 110(4), 509-527. doi:10.1037/pspa0000041

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2016