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Can Your Name Seal Your Fate?

Parents obsess over baby name choices, but do those choices really matter? Can the names we give our children really affect their life paths? That question is ostensibly asked by this promotional video for the new film Freakonomics (NSFW). Unfortunately, the video doesn't seem interested in the answer. It's too busy dreaming up nasty stereotypes and giggling about them to actually talk name science. (For more on the way name stories are used to promote racial stereotypes, check out this series of posts from the Name Lady's sister site, BabyNameWizard.com.)

Let's take the question back from the fantasy world where naming a girl Temptress seals her fate as a floozy -- or where the name Angel guarantees a baby will sleep through the night. If only.

To find the ways names do shape our lives, you have to look beyond literal meanings. Names are much more than words. They pack a world of social information into a few simple letters. They send complex signals to the people we meet, and to ourselves. And each year, researchers find more evidence that those signals do have some impact.

On the most serious level, names can set negative expectations. Research has shown that kids with the type of names associated with poor, uneducated parents are at a disadvantage in school -- even compared to their own siblings with more upscale names. Other studies have found disadvantages for students whose names are considered unattractive, and lower math achievement for girls with distinctly feminine names.

That's the big stuff. The effect of names shows up in subtler ways, too. For instance, we're all drawn to things that resemble ourselves, including our names. Incredible as it may sound, researchers have found that a Louis is more likely than other people to move to St. Louis, and a Dennis to become a dentist. Recent studies have suggested that even our initials can make a difference. For instance, kids whose names start with A may get better grades on average than kids with C and D names.

But wait a second. Does that mean Annabella will do well in math class because she's an A, or badly because her name sounds so feminine? And how did all those Dennises make it to dental school if they were destined to pull D's? Where does all of this research point for a name-choosing parent?

My advice: the signals names send are so limitless and contradictory that tracking down every possible variable is a fool's errand. Instead, try approaching it like nutrition. Amid the constant whirlind of new dietary research, the standard common-sense guidelines still hold. Eat a well-balanced diet rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains, and you should be fine. Similarly, a spellable, pronounceable name that gets a positive reaction from the people you admire remains your safest naming bet.

Comments

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September 20, 2010 9:57 AM
By Abby@AppMtn (not verified)

Bravo!

I watched the video clip in disbelief. This is exactly what I wished I'd written.

September 20, 2010 10:38 AM
By joye (not verified)

I hate, hate, HATE Freakonomics. Thank you so much for writing this.

September 20, 2010 2:49 PM
By Elizabeth T. (not verified)

Wow, that video is so racist and juvenile it blows my mind! I'm stunned that the authors would have permitted it.

September 21, 2010 12:54 PM
By jenny (not verified)

i look forward to the name lady email every week. this week is kind of a letdown!

September 21, 2010 4:29 PM
By Sasha (not verified)

I have ready the Freakonomics book, and even though it has a slight leftist agenda, I found it quite interesting and honest. In American culture my name is associated with black girls, however it's origin is traced back to Russian males as a short form for Alexander. I am neither, I am a white American woman who is half Portuguese. When resumes are given with distinctly different names but have the same credentials the more common, or more white name will be chosen most of the time. My friend that I went to college with was a black girl named Jessica, and said her name made her life easier than her friends and colleagues who were black. Unfortunately, she was also judged by some for being and acting white. In this world nobody can catch a break on either side with everyone being so concerned about being politically correct. What is worse is now we have a new blame game for why someone turned out the way they did, have they every though about taking some responsibility and stop looking for a scapegoat for where they are in life?

September 21, 2010 5:30 PM
By Debbie (not verified)

I've discovered that people think I'm older than I really am if they see my name before meeting me, and younger than I am if they meet me first. This is because my name peaked in the 50's while I was born in the early 80's. This has been great for me when applying for jobs because I don't seem like someone fresh out of college, I get credit for the experience I really have.

September 21, 2010 10:35 PM
By Paula (not verified)

BRAVO, Sasha!!!!! I love your last line!!!!!

September 22, 2010 12:55 AM
By nedibes (not verified)

I didn't look at the video, but it would seem from the comments here that it misrepresents the conclusions of the book. The study described in the book determined that names DID NOT affect life outcome. I don't have the book at home, but here is a quote from a Slate article ("A Roshonda by any other name," 4-11-2005) by the book's authors about the study:

"The data show that, on average, a person with a distinctively black name—whether it is a woman named Imani or a man named DeShawn—does have a worse life outcome than a woman named Molly or a man named Jake. But it isn't the fault of his or her name."

Basically, once socio-economic factors were controlled for, the effect of the name dropped out. I would be interested to know the studies cited in the blog post that show differently.

September 22, 2010 6:47 PM
By Anonymous (not verified)

Interesting. I always figured this would be a very distant secondary effect, although from time to time assumptions made about a person by their name might help or hinder them.

I went to high school with a girl named Chasity (yes, misspelled that way). And she wasn't. Maybe she felt the need to rebel?

September 22, 2010 11:50 PM
By theclarestofthemall (not verified)

I think that a name only shapes a person if they let it shape them. Does that make sense? A lot of girls my age (late teens) are named Ashley, Courtney, or Nicki - names that my family have dubbed (unfairly) fluffy. Except almost all the girls I know who have those typical 90s names do well in school. I think it's because they are aware of the fact that others expect them to be snotty cheerleaders, so they want to prove them wrong. I, on the other hand, have a very traditional family name, and I sometimes use my name (Mary) to my advantage because people expected me to be a sweet little schoolgirl, so I get away with a lot of stuff. We notice other people's reactions to our names, and we either can use that to our advantage, or act the opposite of what others expect.

September 23, 2010 7:47 AM
By Caitlyn (not verified)

I like Freakonomics; it's a pity their video was so silly. (Admittedly the point of a promotional video is to get people to watch the movie, not to present their conclusions, so it's probably not fair to judge them by the trailer.)

It's also my experience that with something like names, every disadvantage carries an advantage on the flipside. If Anabella does have a disadvantage in math, possibly she has an advantage in English, or finds it easier to make friends. So I generally don't worry about such things.

September 27, 2010 12:26 PM
By Anonymous (not verified)

"Chasity" is not necessarily a misspelling of "Chastity." I know a woman named Chasity, and while she does deal with people who think they heard "Chastity" (perhaps because of Sonny & Cher's daughter), her parents intended it to be her name and were not so ignorant as to not know how to spell or what "chastity" means.

September 28, 2010 2:35 PM
By J.M.K.M. (not verified)

I once met a little girl name Honesty who liked to lie and tell people her name is Anie Marie.

October 5, 2010 9:01 AM
By Anonymous (not verified)

That video feels ridiculous to watch, but that is obviously the point of the producers. They want to show an over-the-top example to drive home their point: that names can affect the outcome of your life. However, as another poster mentioned, it is not necessarily the name that makes the person.

I know a girl named Nemesis who has tons of friends, for example. Funny story, and true. Will she be successful once she starts applying for jobs? Maybe.

November 1, 2010 9:19 PM
By Anna (not verified)

You know when you hold a book at the library they put your initials from last name, first name, and middle name. Well when you put those names together my initials are HAM. I am a vegetarian and have been for 7 years. But my favorite animal is a pig. Does my initials have something to do with that?

April 12, 2011 8:47 PM
By Zoe (not verified)

My mother nearly named my little sister Tova, which is Hebrew for Good. We live in a community where many people speak at least some Hebrew and Tova is a pretty basic word. Someone told my mom that naming her daughter Tova was "just asking for it." My mom took it to heart and my sister was named Aviva instead.

I have to say, that guy may have been right. I went to middle school with a girl name Tova who made a hobby of spreading rumors and backstabbing. I know an atheist named Faith. But I also know a very religious girl named Fruma (Frum is Yiddish for religious).

November 12, 2011 10:31 AM
By Andrew (not verified)

Nice posts here dude, really looking forward to checking out your newer stuff too man, it’s all real top info so cheers for that :)

August 10, 2012 3:33 AM
By Sherwani (not verified)

Really intelligent piece of writing buddy, keep it up and I will keep tweeting your blog posts for you so you can get the readers you deserve!

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