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.


Do any of these phrases sound familiar to you?


You’re wasting my time.

This fix will save you hours.

How do you spend your time these days?

That late train cost me an hour.

I’ve invested a lot of time in her.

You’re running out of time. Is that worth your while? Do you have much time left?

He’s living on borrowed time.You don’t use your time profitably. I lost a lot of time last week.


As Lakoff & Johnson point out in their book Metaphors We Live By, we construe Time as Money. This is a buried metaphor, used for so long that we use it without thinking. It’s become a cognitive metaphor, that shapes how we live and act every single day.

In the capitalist system, it makes sense – we are paid by the hour, day, month or year, and we tend to charge by it too. Our time has been exchanged for money. But we extend this metaphor to every part of our lives – spending time with friends, asking if that film was worth seeing. Would we be more generous if we didn’t have this idea that our time can be spent, wasted, or lost?

One of the purest forms of this is the queue. When there’s a limited amount of resource available, like the number of open counters at the Post Office (never enough!), you line up and form an orderly queue. Many jokes have been made of the British love of queuing. Our basic sense of fairness means that everyone, rich or poor, has to take their place in the queue.

Sometimes, you can exchange money for queuing time though. You can pay to ‘queue jump’ at clubs or theme parks. Or you can pay for someone else to queue for you, like these people selling their iPhone 5 spots.

But woe-betide you if you attempt to skip our value system, offer neither time nor money, and queue-jump.

Heavy Shopping

Research by Meng Zhang and Xiuping Liu for the Journal of Consumer Research found out that the weight of shopping affects how consumers judge the importance of unrelated issues.

Literally ‘carrying weight’ can cause people to judge an issue more seriously.

There is a link between physical weight carrying and the related semantic concept of ‘carrying weight’.


Agridulce // Bittersweet


Don’teurgh drink and think.

Bitter drinks make you more judgemental, in a study carried out at the City University of New York.

Drinkers given either a bitter drink, a sweet drink or water and were asked to rate a series of scenarios by how morally questionable they were. Bitter drinkers gave judgements that were an average of 27 points higher.

Oddly, this effect was exacerbated if you were conservative, rather than liberal.

Are our abilities to detect bitter tastes somehow linked to our political leanings?

Or is this another case of the drink taste ‘bitter’ being inextricably linked in the mind to being ‘bitter’ as a state of mind?

Or is it that our mouth turns into the same shape for tasting bitter drinks as it does for displays of disgust, and this influences our decisions?

Whatever the reason, maybe we should be counselling judges and juries to avoid black coffee and sharp lemonade during trials.

Forwards and Upwards

Perhaps appropriately at the very beginning of this blog, I’m going to talk first about the psychology of direction and orientation: how we look back to the past and forward to the future.

Studies have shown that if you sit on a train and you move forwards, your mind turns to the future. If, on the other hand, you feel like you’re going backwards, you think of the past.

So why is this?

It’s because of the way we perceive time. A straight arrow running from the past behind us, forwards to the future.

Terry Pratchett’s fantastical race of trolls have a bluntly logical view of time – that as the past is behind us, and can be seen, and the future is in front of us and cannot be seen, we must all be going through time facing backwards.

Lakoff & Johnson explore the way we orientate ourselves in their Metaphors We Live By.

For instance:

For instance, we associate UP with good things – “going up in the world”, “rising star”, “at the top of his game” – and DOWN with bad.
Even the Christian perception of the world is that Heaven (and God) are UP while Hell (and Satan) must be DOWN.
(I’d be interested to hear if any other cultures perceive it differently? I suspect a few might.)

Another study showed that if you’re on a slightly higher chair in a meeting than the rest of your colleagues, you tend to make more decisions, and act more like a leader.

My banker friend tells me that the office is ordered hierarchically, so that the boss is a few levels above the junior analysts, even when the view isn’t that different between the 40th and 45th floors. And they’re all annoyed their new office results in being ‘downgraded’ a few levels in the new building.

Why is the penthouse the best flat in the building?
In the times with stairs, it was the least expensive, because no one wanted to climb all those steps.
When lifts came in, it became the most.
What’s the difference between being on the 82nd floor, and being on the 83rd floor?
Only that we associate ‘being at the top’ with physically being at the top.

So if you enjoyed this high-minded, high-quality post, look me up in the future for the next instalment…