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The Research on Baby Names

Here are some interesting research findings related to naming.

Key points

  • Girls with gender neutral names may advance to higher levels of traditionally male-dominated fields.
  • More easily pronounceable names are linked to more positive first impressions.
  • People are more likely to choose jobs and places to live that resemble their name.
  • The popularity of certain sounds in names can be influenced by the current popular names and by current events

Gender-neutral names such as Carter, Avery, and Quinn seem to be increasingly popular, particularly for girls, but is there any science to back up this trend? Research finds that girls with more gender-neutral names are more likely to complete higher levels of math and science courses. The researchers in this study controlled for parent and family issues by comparing sisters in the same family and found that this was true even for twins. For example, a twin sister named Alex is twice as likely as a twin sister named Isabella to take math or science at a higher level.

The researchers speculated that this effect may be due to expectations. Teachers and parents are more likely to expect an Alex to excel at math than an Isabella due to negative (and untrue) stereotypes about the math performance of girls. A name may also influence an individual’s self-concept—making an Alex believe she is better at math than her sister Isabella. It is important to note that girls with more feminine names do not actually show worse performance in science and math—they are just less likely to pursue more difficult math and science courses.

Research also finds that girls with more masculine names are more likely to be successful in the traditionally male-dominated legal career. One study which tested this effect (referred to as the “Portia Effect”) found that females with more masculine names were more likely to achieve leadership positions such as judgeships. The researchers speculated that these results may reflect gender bias.

On the other hand, research finds that boys with more gender-neutral names (such as Taylor, Jamie, and Shannon) tend to show more behavioral problems in school and score lower on academic tests. This particularly occurs as boys get older and upon entry to middle school. This trend may reflect the different expectations that teachers have for boys with more gender-neutral names and that gender-neutral names for boys are less accepted by society than gender-neutral names for girls.

What about names that are easier to pronounce?

Research finds that people tend to like other people more and form more positive first impressions of people with easier-to-pronounce names. People with easier-to-pronounce names also tend to be higher on the corporate ladder. For example, lawyers with more easily pronounceable names occupied superior positions within their firm hierarchy. This effect seems to occur regardless of the nationality associated with the name, the name length, or how common the name is.

Another study also found that children with names that are spelled in an unusual way or that have punctuation (such as Da’Quan) also tend to score lower on math and science tests than other children. This may be related to teachers’ expectations or associations of the name with a particular race or socioeconomic class.

What is the research on names related to careers or locations?

Research also suggests that parents may want to consider whether the name resembles a particular career or location. Research finds that people often choose careers that resemble their names (for example, someone named Denise or Dennis is more likely to become a dentist, and someone named Lauren or Larry is more likely to become a lawyer).

People are also more likely to move to a place that resembles their name. For example, women named Georgia or Virginia are more likely to move to these states, and even though it is more of a stretch, women named Florence are more likely to move to Florida. This trend is because of something that psychologists call “implicit egoism,” meaning we are unconsciously more attracted to something that reminds us of ourselves.

How do some names become popular?

In choosing a name, research finds that parents strive both to be unique and “fit in” with the crowd. They try to choose names that will help their child to stand out yet also will seem somewhat familiar. Accordingly, they often choose a slightly different version of a popular name from previous years. Specifically, research finds that parents tend to choose names with similar sounds or phonemes as very popular names in the past in order to be unique without being “too unique.” For example, Jennifer was very popular in the 1980s, and then as Jennifer waned in popularity, the name Jessica increased in popularity. A similar pattern occurred with Emily, which was replaced by Emma.

Here is an example from more recent years. The number-one girl’s name in the United States in 2021 was Olivia. Other names in the top 10 of 2021 include Sophia, Mia, and Amelia, which all have the same ending sound. At some point, though, a particular phoneme becomes so overused that it starts to decrease in popularity. This suggests that eventually, we should expect names ending in -ia to decrease in popularity.

Research also finds that external events may increase the popularity of certain sounds in names. For example, one study found that baby names are more likely to resemble recent hurricanes. This is particularly true for hurricanes that received a lot of media attention. For example, after Hurricane Katrina, names that begin with K increased in use by 9 percent!

More from Cara Goodwin, Ph.D.
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