- Research shows that people hold stereotypes about others based on their names.
- Names can reveal cultural values and cultural shifts, research suggests.
- Our names may also influence our personality.
- Names may also influence important life decisions although this claim is more controversial.
What’s your name? It’s a common enough question we will likely answer hundreds or perhaps thousands of times during our lives. Beyond making social interactions less awkward and giving us a helpful tag to remember information about others, names can also reveal more than you might imagine about human psychology.
Names as Stereotypes
What type of person comes to mind when you think of someone named Elizabeth? How about someone named Misty? According to 400 American participants, “Elizabeths” are high in warmth and competence, while “Mistys” are low on both of these positive traits. “Rileys" are seen as warm but not competent, and “Ruths” are viewed as competent but not warm (Newman et al., 2018; 2022).
Other work suggests that we use names to infer information, often stereotypical, about others’ ethnicity and social class. In a series of experiments involving thousands of participants, Crabtree and colleagues (2022) showed that participants tended to guess that targets with names that are more common among European Americans, like “Mary,” are higher in both education and income than targets with names like “Lakisha” that are more common among African Americans.
Names more common among Latin Americans were linked with the lowest perceived income and education levels on average. In contrast, names more common among Asian Americans were linked to the highest perceived education levels and income levels comparable to those with names common among European Americans.
Names and Culture
Names can tell us something about culture, and have been used in a number of studies to trace geographic variations in values and cultural changes over time. Several researchers have argued that the choice of a relatively unpopular vs. popular name may indicate a preference for uniqueness or conformity—essentially, a way of helping your child to fit in or stand out.
And indeed, in parts of the world where individualism is higher, so is the proportion of children receiving relatively uncommon names (Ogihara, 2023; Varnum & Kitayama, 2011; 2022). Regional differences in naming practices also suggest that preferences for nonconformity are stronger in parts of the U.S. that were more recently the frontier, potentially reflecting historical and contemporary self-selection in migration to these regions (Varnum & Kitayama, 2011). Consistent with this idea, an analysis of Scandinavian census and migration records suggests that people with less-common names were more likely to emigrate historically (Knudsen, 2019).
Shifts in naming also may signal changes in cultural values over time. The proportion of babies receiving popular names has in fact declined dramatically over the past two centuries in the U.S. (Twenge et al., 2010; Grossmann & Varnum, 2015) and over the past few decades in Japan (Ogihara & Ito, 2022), shifts which are consistent with other evidence of rising individualism in these societies over time (Hamamura, 2012; Santos, Varnum, & Grossmann, 2017).
Beyond reflecting a preference for conformity or non-conformity, names may be linked to what’s known as honor culture, a set of norms and values common in the American South emphasizing the importance of reputation and defense of reputation through aggression (Nisbett, 2018). An analysis of popular names by Brown and colleagues (2014) suggests patronymic names (giving a child their father’s first name) are more common in states where honor culture is more predominant. In a separate study, the researchers found that men who more strongly endorsed honor values reported a greater preference for giving any future children they might father their own first name.
Our Names, Our Destinies?
Intriguingly, recent studies suggest that we may look like our names. When asked to guess which of a handful of names corresponded to a photograph of a person’s face, humans and computers were able to do so at rates above chance (Zwebner et al., 2017), a phenomenon the researchers suggest may be due to a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Our names may also influence where we end up living and what kind of careers we pursue. In a series of studies, Pelham and colleagues (2002) found that women named Virginia, as opposed to Mildred, were more likely to live in Virginia Beach. “Mildreds,” on the other hand, were more likely than “Virginias” to live in Milwaukee. The researchers also found that “Dennises” were disproportionately likely to be dentists. Results like these suggest that our names may shape these consequential life decisions through what the researchers call “implicit egotism.”
These findings are quite well-known—however, a set of replications and re-analyses by Simonsohn (2011) has cast doubt on whether in fact names are driving these effects. For example, although "Dennises" are more likely than "Walters" to be dentists, they are also more likely than "Walters" to be lawyers. Findings that Simonsohn argues suggest cohort effects in name frequencies rather than implicit egotism. That said, in later work, Pelham and Mauricio (2014) found more robust support for the notion that our last names may influence career choices, i.e. "Carpenters" are more likely to be, you guessed it, carpenters.
Names aren’t a typical variable in psychological science, and most popular books on names have little science to them. Yet the study of names can provide valuable insights into phenomena ranging from cultural change to stereotypes. Our names may also be cues that shape not only others’ perceptions of us but also our personality and (perhaps) our choices about where to live and what to do for a living.
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Brown, R. P., Carvallo, M., & Imura, M. (2014). Naming patterns reveal cultural values: Patronyms, matronyms, and the US culture of honor. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 40(2), 250-262.
Crabtree, C., Gaddis, S. M., Holbein, J. B., & Larsen, E. N. (2022). Racially distinctive names signal both race/ethnicity and social class. Sociological Science, 9, 454-472.
Hamamura, T. (2012). Are cultures becoming individualistic? A cross-temporal comparison of individualism–collectivism in the United States and Japan. Personality and social psychology Review, 16(1), 3-24.
Knudsen, A. S. B. (2019). Those who stayed: Individualism, self-selection and cultural change during the age of mass migration. SSRN. http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3321790
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Nisbett, R. E. (2018). Culture of honor: The psychology of violence in the South. Routledge.
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Ogihara, Y., & Ito, A. (2022). Unique names increased in Japan over 40 years: baby names published in municipality newsletters show a rise in individualism, 1979-2018. Current Research in Ecological and Social Psychology, 3, 100046.
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Zwebner, Y., Sellier, A. L., Rosenfeld, N., Goldenberg, J., & Mayo, R. (2017). We look like our names: The manifestation of name stereotypes in facial appearance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 112(4), 527-554.