In 2017, Liam surpassed Noah as the most popular male baby name in the United States. The name Emma remained the most popular female name, followed closely by Olivia, Ava, and Isabella. Over the past 100 years, the top baby names have changed relatively little. There’s some fluctuation over which biblical name tops the list, but nonetheless, the trends remain static and fairly arbitrary. Names are an integral part of our identity, but most of us have no say in what name we are assigned—so what role does a name play in shaping who a person becomes? Why do certain people name their kids Apple, Adolf Hitler (as one neo-Nazi couple did in 2018), or even a single letter? Will the Liams of the world live up to their name’s meaning of “strong willed and protective,” or are names simply an easy way to distinguish one another?
Archeologists have traced the first known named humans to Mesopotamia. An ancient tablet found in modern-day Iraq records a business transaction: “29,086 measures barley 37 months Kushim.” Archeologists speculate that Kushim was a buyer or seller who signed his name to record the transaction. Names became necessary as humans began to record their communication because they made it possible to differentiate between people and refer to a specific person more easily.
Names serve a similar purpose today. For most of us, our name is an unconscious part of our identity; it’s the first thing we tell new people. Parents today often spend countless hours deciding on the perfect name for their child. Compared to countries like New Zealand, where the state reviews all baby names and prohibits unreasonably long or potentially offensive names, the U.S. has few rules for naming children, though numbers and symbols are still prohibited.
Having a fairly unique name myself, I’ve often wondered whether less-common names produce any kind of subconscious effect on their owners. This question has proven difficult for researchers to answer. Often, people with unique names form too small a sample size, and it can be difficult to isolate the experimental impact of one name versus another, since individuals tend to only have one name in their life. In 1948, researchers at Harvard University compared the academic performance of men with unusual names versus those with more common names. They concluded that individuals with unique names tended to have lower academic performance. However, more recent studies have concluded that there was no correlation with academic performance.
Searching for answers myself, I talked with several friends and family members about their names. Emily Jane, a Colorado College sophomore with the most popular first and middle names for females in her birth year, says, “I feel like my name is pretty boring, but I don’t think it affects my life or my success too much.” Emily’s opinion was common among the students I talked with. Most people seem to like their names, but discount any unconscious power they might play. Sam, a first-year student who identifies as a woman, said, “I like having a common name because it’s easy for people to remember you.” But, she says, “it makes me feel less unique because so many people have my name.” However, she also felt that “The name ‘Sam’ could be seen as unprofessional,” which is why she applies to all of her jobs as Samantha.” Most people develop an affinity for their own names because they are so familiar. But despite the attachment that we might have to our own names, how other people interpret our names could be more important in determining whether names carry power over our lives.
Just as Sam worried that her name may be seen as “unprofessional” to future employers, names can also be a way for employers to screen, stereotype, and discriminate against job candidates. In a 2003 study called, “Are Emily and Greg More Employable than Lakisha and Jamal? A Field Experiment on Market Discrimination,” Marianne Bertrand and Sendhil Mullainathan examined whether names act as a signaling mechanism that allows employers to discriminate by race. Bertrand and Mullainathan first identified distinctly “black and white sounding names.” They did this “by identifying those that have the highest ratio of frequency in one racial group to frequency in the other racial group.” Emily and Greg became the “white sounding” test names, while Lakisha and Jamal acted as the “black names.” Next, they used these same names to create 5,000 fake resumes responding to help wanted ads in Chicago and Boston. They submitted a series of identical resumes to a variety of companies, half of which were headed with a “white sounding” name and half with a “black sounding” name. Bertrand and Mullainathan were able to isolate the effect a person’s name had on whether they received a call back—since the resumes were identical except for the name attached to them, any difference in employers’ response rate could be attributed to the name’s implied race.
They found that “white names received 50 percent more calls for interviews. A white name yields as many more call backs as an additional eight years of experience on a resume.” Bertrand and Mullainathan’s findings show that names are one of the quickest ways to discriminate. Their findings suggest that names affect employment prospects, and thus have huge real world implications. However, it’s important to note that these findings are more tied to the underlying racial connotations behind names than to the names themselves. Furthermore, this study only looked at the effects of name discrimination during the first stage of the hiring process. Presumably, a discriminatory employer would be equally discriminatory during later stages of the hiring process. However, it’s clear that certain names could help a candidate get their foot in the door.
This same discrimination is the reason many immigrants feel the need to use anglicized names. A 2009 Swedish study looked at how immigrants can improve their economic outcomes by changing names. Mahmood Arai and Peter Skogman Thoursie, economists from Stockholm University, found that immigrants who changed their names to Swedish-sounding ones earned an average of 26 percent more than those who kept their Slavic, Asian, or African names. Researchers speculate that candidates with Swedish-sounding names seemed more trustworthy to employers. In this way, familiar names helped them land higher-paying jobs. This pressure to assimilate represents underlying racism in the job market. Names are not the cause of such racism, but they provide a tool for discrimination to occur.
However, research from another 2003 study challenges both of these previous findings. Steven Levitt, author of Freakonomics, and his partner Roland G. Freyer, Jr. produced a study for the National Bureau of Economic Research that analyzed California birth data. Levitt and Freyer compared birth records of children with distinctively black and white names. They isolated the impact that names played in life outcomes by running a regression analysis and removing the role of socioeconomic factors, parental education level, and race. Since the records were available for multiple generations, researchers were able to evaluate whether names helped people advance over time. Although names may signal determining factors, like a person’s wealth, they found that names themselves played no role in how successful people ultimately turned out to be.
In contrast to prior research, Freyer and Levitt found “no negative causal impact of having a distinctively black name on life outcomes.” In other words, their study shows that names have a negligible impact in how others treat us, and thus have little impact on success. They attempt to reconcile this finding with earlier research, arguing that if distinctively black names really were a detriment, we would see people changing their names more often.
Maybe they’re right. Names might just be an interesting, while fairly meaningless, part of who we become. However, when I was wrapping up my research, I noticed one last part of Levitt and Freyer’s study that interested me. At the start of their article, they tried to explain why black and white names diverged in the first place. They argue that segregation in the 1960s and 1970s, coupled with the Black Power movement, led to a profound shift in naming patterns. They write, “The median black female in a segregated area went from receiving a name that was twice as likely to be given to blacks as whites to a name that was more than twenty times as likely to be given to blacks.” Instead of looking at the impact of names on individuals, maybe we should consider why individuals’ parents choose certain names in the first place.
Names don’t conclusively change who we become, but they do tell us a lot about a child’s circumstances at birth. Eric Oliver, a professor of political science at the University of Chicago, described his interest in names: “They are highly related to taste and fashion but largely free from market effects.” Names can tell us a lot about social, cultural, and political trends. Yet unlike other signals of culture, names are free for anyone to use. Oliver looked more into what names can revealed about parents. He and his colleagues found that liberal, educated parents are more likely to give their children unique names that serve as conscious or unconscious signals of their “cultural taste.” Conservative parents tend to name their children more popular and traditional names, like John or Mary. The authors presume these conservative names can signal economic capital.
Although a child’s name is unlikely to affect who they become, names are an interesting signal of their parents’ backgrounds. For example, one person I spoke to mentioned how her name “has prompted [her] to learn more about Scottish history.” Names can connect people to their family’s history, culture, or story. For some, this connection can serve as a positive link to a larger community, but for others, the connotations of a name can become a burden that instantly shapes how people perceive you. The studies that I reviewed show that names can certainly provide a basis for judgement. Although Levitt and Freyer discount the impact of distinctively black names, I find the research on discrimination in resumes quite convincing. Names provide a foundation for people to hold racial bias, often before ever meeting face to face. By understanding these studies, we can better understand the bias that surrounds names. A person’s name may indicate something about where they come from, but it doesn’t necessarily describe who they become.
Fill In The Blank Issue | April 2019