What’s In A Name?

doff thy nameMaybe your parents chose it for you. Maybe you chose it for yourself. It’s probably your father’s surname, though I know people who have hyphenated, or a husband’s, or a great-grandmother’s, or even a hippy blend of both their parents’ first names. And your parents picked out your first name, hopefully checking it for potential teasing nicknames and terrible combinations of initials. But your name might have even further-reaching consequences.

There’s a bizarre phenomenon where people’s own surnames guide them towards their career paths. The New Scientist nicknamed this ‘nominative deternism’ after noticing trend in scientists’ names to reflect on their subjects, including a paper on incontinence, written by J W Splatt and D Weedon.* It might also be genetic – that a good baker comes from a long line of ‘Bakers’, who were originally named for their trade. (No comment on the urologists though.)

The Economist even identifies that world leaders are much more likely to have surnames with A-M than the last half of the alphabet.* It might be that the early-letter surnames spend their time sitting alphabetically, at the front of the class, receiving more attention, being asked to speak more often, and learning more. Or that we still see lists as orders of merits – with those at the top, with the earliest surnames, being the best. The same effect is found for fellowships and Nobel Prizes in economics, where names of contributors are cited alphabetically, but not for psychology, where you’re credited according to the size of your contribution.*

People are even more likely to give to a hurricane relief effort if the initial of the hurricane matches that of their name.*

Our names form a crucial part of our identities, something others label us by. How often have you felt more drawn to, or more competitive with, someone who shares your name? And notice how weirdly intimate you feel when a relative stranger keeps calling you by your name all the time: a standard persuasive technique for pushy salespeople or flirty shop assistants.

‘What’s in a name?’ Juliet might have asked, but a Rose by any other name may not be as sweet.

In your prime

older_manI’ve just started reading Lean In and Sheryl Sandberg has a great piece on priming.


Sandberg calls it the ‘stereotype threat’ – that if you suggest a stereotype to people, they are likely to live up to it. So, as boys are stereotyped as better at maths and science than girls, you ask children to tick a gender box on the top of their maths test. The girls then perform worse.* But it’s also an example of social priming.


Here’s another example: students were given words that reminded them of elderly people, such as retirement, wrinkle, forgetful, in an unrelated test then measured secretly as they walked down the corridor. Those primed with elderly words walked more slowly than those primed with neutral (unless you disliked elderly people, and then you walked faster!) Another group were primed with rude and neutral words: those with rude were more likely to interrupt.*


So even the words we use, without being aware of it, change the way we act towards others. Considering how often we’ve filled in our names and dates of birth on the front of tests, how have we quietly primed ourselves to succeed or fail, based off subliminal stereotypes?


Currently, priming is having a moment of crisis, as some studies fail to replicate the original results. (Replication means the ability of an entire study to be done again, or done by other people, to cross-check the results, and is a cornerstone of scientific knowledge.)*


Yet social priming still seems a powerful tool. How can we overturn the implicit stereotypes in our society? And how can we use our primed selves to demonstrate greater empathy, or prime ourselves for more positive traits? 


And if you suddenly feel a little more frail, check the photo at the top of this post again, and wonder if you’ve been primed.


* http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1559-1816.2008.00362.x/abstract

* http://psycnet.apa.org/?&fa=main.doiLanding&doi=10.1037/0022-3514.71.2.230

* http://www.nature.com/news/disputed-results-a-fresh-blow-for-social-psychology-1.12902