Personal names evoke inferences about gender, ethnicity, social class, intellectual competence, masculinity-femininity, and even personality characteristics, according to University of Melbourne’s Simon M. Laham, Peter Koval of University of Leuven and NYU’s Adam L. Alter.
They argue that these assumptions affect impression formation and may lead to bias.
UCLA’s Albert Mehrabian began investigating the impact of personal names more than 20 years ago, and developed the Name Connotation Profile to assess attributions to specific names.
Saku Aura of University of Missouri collaborated with Claremont McKenna College’s Gregory D. Hess to demonstrate personal names are also associated life outcomes: Income and educational attainment.
They evaluated the relationship among “first name features” (FNF) including:
- “Popularity” (frequency)
- Number of syllables
- Phonetic features
- Scrabble score (!)
- “Blackness” (fraction of people with that name who are African-American)
- “Exogenous” background factors (like sex, race, parents’ education).
In addition, Aura and Hess scrutinized possible links between first names and “lifetime outcomes” including
- Financial status,
- Occupational prestige
- Perceived social class
- Becoming a parent before age 25.
First name features predicted education, happiness and early fertility, which are related to productivity in the labor market.
Aura and Hess also noted that discriminatory decisions about names, particularly those rated for their “blackness”, can affect labor market participation.
Similarly University of Chicago’s Marianne Bertrand and Sendhil Mullainathan of Harvard reported name discrimination in the workplace affecting hiring decisions: Job applicants with “African American-sounding” names were less likely to be invited for a job interview than a person with a “White-sounding” name.
Bertrand and Mullainathan responded to help-wanted ads in Boston and Chicago newspapers by sending fictitious resumes containing “African-American” or “White” names.
They found that “White name” candidate received 50% more interview invitations across occupation, industry, and employer size.
This bias was centered more on inferred race than social class, suggesting that discrimination in hiring practices persists but has become more subtle, and perhaps even unconscious.
Bradley University’s Claire E. Etaugh, Myra Cummings-Hill, and Joseph Cohen with Judith S. Bridges of University of Hartford found that women who take their husband’s surname are typically seen as less “agentic” and more “communal” than those who retain their own names.
These attributions are usually associated with stereotypic “feminine” attitudes and behaviors, which can slow career advancement.
Gender-based name discrimination can affect males as well: Gender-incongruous names seem to invoke social penalties for boys, according to Northwestern’s David Figlio.
He reported that boys who had names usually associated with girls were more likely to be expelled from school after disruptive behavior beginning in middle school.
In related findings, Shippensburg University’s David E. Kalist and Daniel Y. Lee found that people with unusual names (less “popular”) were more likely to have juvenile delinquency experiences.
These finding suggest that unusual names may provoke negative and stigmatizing attributions, which can lead to confirmatory behaviors that lead to asocial acts.
Besides racial and ethnic associations with names, some are easier for English speaking people to pronounce.
Easy-to-say names are judged more favorably than difficult-to-pronounce names, in findings related to those mentioned earlier by Laham, Koval, and Alter.
In fact, they found that people with easier-to-pronounce surnames occupy higher status positions in law firms, demonstrating the importance of “processing fluency”- the subjective ease or difficulty of a cognitive task – when forming an impression.
Laham and team point to the “hedonic marking hypothesis,” that posits “processing fluency” automatically activates a positive emotional reaction, which is then attributed to the evaluated “stimulus object” – a person’s name.
They noted that pronouncability strongly influences likeability and other evaluations, and can lead to decision bias, as in hiring choices.
Names matter, whether for products or people, because they carry emotional and cognitive associations that may bias impressions and decisions.
-*How have you modified your name?
-*What have been the effects on how others perceive you? Your occupational opportunities?
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