Amid Royal Baby Name Wait, Asking if Names Affect Life

Psychologists probe the fascinating ways our names impact us.

Brightly colored name bracelets are sold as souvenirs in Playa del Carmen, Mexico.


Updated on July 25, 2013 at 11:00 AM

The newest prince of England has been given a name: George Alexander Louis. Choosing a name is often serious business for parents. And it's no wonder, given that a number of psychological studies have shown that a person's name can influence subsequent events in their life.

The new prince's father, Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, was named William Arthur Philip Louis at birth. His father, Charles, Prince of Wales, was called Charles Philip Arthur George by his royal parents.

That's a pattern that bestowed four "first" names and no "last" or surname. Each of those first names was chosen to honor past monarchs and royal relatives in a long line of the House of Windsor.

For commoners, however, there is a great deal more flexibility when it comes to names.

Some parents choose to name their offspring after their interests, such as ESPN (pronounced Espen) or Jed I. Knight. (Note: These are both real names.)

Psychologists have also noticed that some people take up professions that seem somewhat predetermined, based on their names. In a phenomenon called aptonyms, examples include the American Heart Association's Cherish Hart, basketball player Tyce Tallman, Mike Blackbird of the Audubon Society, and the aptly named accountant Sandi Cash.

Then there are the really unusual names.

In 1999, parents in New Zealand named their daughter Talula Does the Hula From Hawaii, although a judge legally changed the girl's name when she was nine years old.

The judge said, "The court is profoundly concerned about the very poor judgment that this child's parents have shown in choosing this name. It makes a fool of the child and sets her up with a social disability and handicap, unnecessarily," according to the Guardian.

In his ruling, the judge included a list of already-prohibited names on the New Zealand books. Among them: Stallion, Yeah Detroit, Fish and Chips, Twisty Poi, Keenan Got Lucy, and Sex Fruit. Names that made the cut included Midnight Chardonnay, Number 16 Bus Shelter, Violence, and a set of twins called Benson and Hedges.

Such unusual names are not limited to New Zealand, though. Celebrities have long been known to give their progeny unusual names, from Frank Zappa's choice of Moon Unit, Dweezil, Ahmet, and Diva, to Gwyneth Paltrow's kids Apple and Moses, to Kanye West and Kim Kardashian's daughter North West.

Among regular folks, unusual American girls' names in 2012 included Jagger, Couture, Excel, Yoga, and Sanity, according to Babycenter.com. For boys, the site listed Vice, Xenon, Mango, Drifter, and Hippo.

Even if a person's name is more common, psychologists have wondered for years if their moniker could impact their lot in life.

How Names Are Perceived

In their bestselling book Freakonomics and on their blog, Stephen J. Dubner and Steven D. Levitt noted that different races and classes tend to have different preferences for names. Wealthier families tend to choose female names that seem strong, such as Elizabeth or Rachel, and male names that seem less forceful, such as Florian or Julian, they wrote. Lower-income families tend to follow the opposite pattern, although specific names tend to cycle in popularity between the classes over time.

Sometimes the sound of someone's name is used to discriminate against them, the authors wrote. It can be part of overt classism or racism, or it can be more subtly based on stereotypes, such as when an employer assumes that someone will be good at math because they have a name that seems Asian.

Subtle effects of our names may compound over time, influencing where we end up, wrote Dubner and Levitt.

To better understand how names are perceived, psychology professor Richard Wiseman of the University of Hertfordshire asked 6,000 Britons to rate the 40 most popular first names for such qualities as intelligence and success. For those traits, "royal names" won out, such as James and Elizabeth.

Wiseman concluded that there may be an element of self-fulling prophecy; if children feel that they are being held to high standards, they may be more likely to go the extra mile.

How Names May Affect Career

A number of researchers have combed through demographic data to discover how trends in naming may impact those in the working world.

Adam Alter, an author and professor of marketing and psychology, found that people tend to prefer politicians with simpler names.

Economists Bentley Coffey and Patrick McLaughlin found in a study that women with names that sound more "masculine" (such as Kerry or Jody) were more likely to be judges than women with names that are considered more typically feminine (Hazel, Laurie, or Ashley).

In a 2000 study, psychologist James Bruning of Ohio University found "that people subconsciously predict career success for those with names that more closely match the gender stereotype associated with a profession," according to a statement from the university.

Bruning added, "I wouldn't overestimate the impact of names, but at the same time, names are an important part of first impressions."

Bruning said employers may make a subconscious connection between a position and what they view as a gender match with an applicant's name. In his study, published in the Journal of Social Psychology, women with more feminine names—Emma, Marta, Irma, and Winifred—were considered more likely to be successful in traditional female occupations, such as nurse, hair stylist, or interior decorator. Men with more masculine names—Howard, Boris, Hank, and Bruno—were assumed to be more successful in traditionally male jobs, such as plumber, truck driver, and electrician.

"A woman named Garret pursuing a job in daycare or a man named Hank contemplating a career as a hair stylist, for example, might be searching for that dream position longer than an Emma planning to be a flight attendant or a Bruno seeking construction work," the researchers concluded.

What's in a First Name?

In 2002, psychologist Brett Pelham, then an analyst for Gallup, wrote a research paper called "Why Susie Sells Seashells by the Seashore," which posited that people often follow professions that resemble their first names. Women named Laura often become lawyers, while men named Dennis often become dentists, he wrote.

Pelham also noted that women named Georgia are more likely to move to the state of Georgia, while men named Louis often end up in Louisiana.

Pelham told Science Focus that the force behind such self-selection is something he called "implicit egotism," which is the tendency to pick things that remind us of ourselves, even the letters in our names.

"If you notice even some fragment of your name, it catches your attention and creates a positive association for you," Pelham said.

When it comes to naming a royal baby, Bruning told National Geographic that the monarch's family is likely to consider issues of history and tradition carefully. When it comes to everyday people, Bruning said, "You may be naming a baby, but what you are really doing is naming an adult, because they will be an adult for 40, 50, or 60 years.

"Put an adult title in front of the name and if it sounds ok, it is probably a good name. President Trixsie? President Catherine is probably much better."

So what is in a prince's name? Do you think your name has helped or hurt you?

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