A recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences confirmed that dolphins address each other by using unique names. The marine mammals have been shown to use distinct whistles, which they develop as infants, to identify each other, and upon hearing their own call repeat it back as if to say, “I’m here.” Dolphins are the only animal other than humans known to use names. For humans, personal naming is a tradition so ancient that it cannot be traced back to a beginning. It’s an initiation that recognizes an individual’s existence as a part of a society that acknowledges its responsibilities to that person. It is a fundamental human right to have one, to have an identity, but what’s in a name? The Romans once had the expression nomen est omen, or “name is destiny.” Can a name impact who a person is or who they will turn out to be? Is there a correlation between names and personality traits or even success?
Some scientific researchers claim that a name can subconsciously influence certain decisions a person makes throughout his or her life. Social psychologist Brett Pelham studied hundreds of thousands of names and concluded that it was no coincidence that there was a significant amount of Dennises who were dentists and Lauras who were lawyers. Pelham added that those who were named George were more likely to become geologists and people named Georgia were more likely to move to the state of Georgia. The study also found that people are more likely to marry or befriend others whose names resemble their own. For example, this may have been the reason why Tom Cruise dated Penelope Cruz or why Paris Hilton was once engaged to Paris Latsis. Pelham attributed this trend to a theory called implicit egotism, or the psychology that most people associate positively with themselves and thus tend to prefer things that remind them of themselves. “The biggest symbol of who you are, in fact, is your name, and if you feel good about yourself and your name, you will feel good about anything that even vaguely resembles your name,” he said.
While a name may influence a person’s life decisions, can a name be a predictor of how successful a person will be or even how much they will earn? According to online job-matching site TheLadders, the answer is yes. The company analyzed its salary information against names and found out that, on average, people with shorter names earned more money. To be exact, each extra letter cost about $3600 in annual salary. Among male C-level executives, 8 of the top-earning names had 5 letters or fewer. TheLadders went further and analyzed full names against their nickname counterparts, such as Christopher and Chris or William and Bill. In all cases but one, the shorter name earned more (Lawrence beat out Larry). Salaries among the same name spelled differently were also looked at, such as Sara vs Sarah or Philip vs Phillip, and fewer letters always meant higher earnings. Another study conducted by LinkedIn found a similar correlation between short names and success. Frank Nuessel, a names specialist, told the professional social media site that a short or abbreviated name often “denotes a sense of friendliness and openness,” which can be especially valuable in a creative industry.
Perceptions regarding certain names can also be influenced by stereotypes, which in turn, can affect how a person navigates through life. Studies have proven that people make different assumptions about a person whose name is Kayesha than they do about someone named Maggie. Yolanda Spivey, a black woman seeking work in the insurance industry, found that she wasn’t receiving callbacks on applications after being unemployed for 2 years. As an experiment, she created a fake job applicant and gave her the name Bianca White, but kept the same employment history and educational background that was listed on her own resume. She uploaded the resume to Monster.com, listed Bianca as a white woman on the diversity questionnaire, and activated the account. Over the next few days her voicemail became filled with potential employers seeking an interview with Bianca, while Yolanda’s identical resume received significantly fewer hits. At the end of the week, Bianca received 9 phone calls, while Yolanda received none. Bianca received 7 emails and Yolanda received 2. Although Yolanda got 2 emails, the potential positions that offered competitive salaries and benefits all went to Bianca. A recent paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research asserts that having a black-sounding name hurts a person’s chances of getting a callback for a job. After responding to 1300 job ads using fake names, researchers found that white names got 1 callback per 10 resumes and black names got 1 per 15.
Names certainly can influence a person’s life, but that doesn’t mean every Denise is going to become a dentist or that every Bob is going to make 6 figures at his job when he grows up. Moral of the story? Choose carefully when naming your next child. Just in case.
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- Dell’Amore C. Dolphins have “names,” respond when called. National Geographic website. July 22, 2013. http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2013/07/130722-dolphins-whistle-names-identity-animals-science.
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- King SL, Janik VM. Bottlenose dolphins can use learned vocal labels to address each other. PNAS. 2013;110(32):13216-13221.
- Pelham BW, Mirenberg MC, Jones JT. Why Susie sells seashells by the seashore: implicit egotism and major life decisions. J Pers Soc Psychol. 2002;82(4):469-487. http://www.stat.columbia.edu/~gelman/stuff_for_blog/susie.pdf.
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- Unemployed black woman pretends to be white, job offers suddenly skyrocket. Techyville website. November 15, 2012. http://www.techyville.com/2012/11/news/unemployed-black-woman-pretends-to-be-white-job-offers-suddenly-skyrocket.