Choosing a new name for a child is among the most challenging tasks facing new parents. Some spend most of the pregnancy poring over books and online lists of baby names until the last moment. Others know right away which name they want but choose to keep it secret until after the baby is born.
This creates quite a bit of hype around the whole event. The recent arrival of the royal baby is no exception. Betting agency Ladbrokes said it had taken 50,000 bets as the Duchess of Cambridge went into labour, while Coral said it was the biggest non-sporting event in it’s history.
And then the couple announced that their boy would be called George Alexander Louis. In the case of William and Kate, and the new third in line to the British throne, it was probably unlikely they were going to opt for something too wacky. So no Moon Unit (Zappa), Zowie (Bowie) or Leaf (now Joaquin Phoenix) for the royal Windsors.
So why the big fuss over baby names? Is all the hullabaloo justified? Does it actually matter which name your baby ends up with? The answer is yes, at least a little.
Psychologists and other social scientists have devoted quite some attention to studying names and how they relate to various life outcomes.
Psychologist Albert Mehrabian and his colleagues conducted extensive surveys of the impressions conveyed by names, including emotional desirability and positive or negative connotations of unconventionally spelled names.
These studies show that, at least in the absence of other relevant information, people are judged to be more or less warm, successful, and even ethical on the basis of their names.
Social ladders and judgmental matters
Former Apprentice contestant Katie Hopkins recently caused a stir after she criticised names such as Chantelle, Charmaine, Chardonnay and Tyler, for being “lower class”.
Hopkins went further in saying that she would prevent her children from playing with peers with those names in case they slid down the social ladder.
It may be that you think Hopkins and other people’s judgements are inconsequential and the only thing that matters is how warm, successful or ethical a person actually is. But names do appear to predict actual success - and possibly even how ethical someone turns out to be.
There are studies that suggest that they can also be used to predict education level, financial status and even a person’s chances of getting a job. Names have been related to behavioural problems among children and criminality among adults.
Is this really true?
A number of different factors might influence these associations. For example, the personality of a parent who names their child with an unusual name.
However, one factor that hasn’t really been considered until recently is how easily a person’s name can be pronounced.
In a series of studies that I conducted together with fellow psychologists Simon Laham, at the University of Melbourne, and Adam Alter, at NYU’s Stern Business School, we found that people with easy-to-pronounce “fluent” surnames were judged more positively than people with difficult-to-pronounce “disfluent” surnames.
These studies built on previous research in psychology that has examined how the ease, or fluency, with which stimuli (ranging from US stocks to pharmaceutical drugs) are perceived influence people’s judgments and evaluations of them.
In line with these previous studies, we found that politicians with easily pronounceable names were judged as more competent and ranked higher on a mock ballot. In the real-world, we found that name fluency was related to the seniority of lawyers within the hierarchy of their law firms: the easier a lawyer’s name was to pronounce, the higher up he or she was in the firm.
Importantly, in these studies, we controlled for a number of factors that are correlated with name fluency. We found that independent of their length, unusualness, or foreignness, easier-to-pronounce names were preferred to more disfluent ones.
We also ruled out ethnic/cultural factors. The name-pronunciation effect was the same when native English language speakers rated foreign names as when they judged Anglo-Celtic names, and also when Asian students rated names of varying cultural origins.
So why do people prefer easy-to-pronounce names? Perhaps a Max or a Jenny. A likely explanation can be found in the hedonic marking hypothesis, which proposes that being able to perceive a stimulus with ease automatically evokes positive feelings, which are then attributed to that stimulus.
In other words, people are lazy, so doing something that’s relatively effortless like reading or saying a person’s name that is easy-to-pronounce makes us feel good. Without knowing it, that feeling is transferred to the person whose name we’ve just pronounced, making us like them even more.
So, if you’re trying to decide between Judy and Thyrza, spare a thought for the name-pronunciation effect.
But there are plenty of urban myths and anecdotal stories about the separate fortunes of siblings that illustrate how we don’t always conform, including the notable example from the book Freakonomics of Winner and Loser Lane - where Winner went on to enjoy a rich criminal record while his younger brother Loser went on to join the New York Police Department.