The predictive power of names

Wednesday, September 9, 2020 - 1:25am

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From a young age, we’ve all heard that “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers.” But did any of us ask why Peter Piper would choose to engage in such a task? In a similar fashion, “Susie sells seashells by the seashore.” What force drove Susie to do this? 

In a 2001 survey of psychology papers, researchers Brett W. Pelham, Matthew C. Mirenberg and John T. Jones told us why by presenting an underlying psychological principle that causes the following phenomena: Humans tend to gravitate toward places that resemble their names. There are statistically significant densities of Virginias in Virginia, Georgias in Georgia, Louises in Louisiana and Florences in Florida. This is also true for Kenneths in Kentucky, Mildreds in Milwaukee, Jacks in Jacksonville and Philips in Philadelphia. You might think, what if parents simply name their children after the place they live at a higher than average rate? The study actually disproved that hypothesis and showed that people with names similar to the states actually moved there. 

People’s occupations are correlated with their names. As an example, one study identified the owners of hardware stores and roofing companies in the 20 largest American cities: “Hardware store owners were about 80% more likely to have names beginning with the letter H as compared with R. In contrast, roofers showed the reverse pattern. They were about 70% more likely to have names beginning with R as compared with H.” Similarly, in the world of scientific publications, researchers with names beginning with Geo- such as George and Geoffrey, were statistically more likely than people with other names to be published in the geosciences. There are more than statistically expected Den- names such as Denise and Dennis working as dentists and more than expected La- names such as Laura and Larry working as lawyers. 

For some anecdotal evidence, take famous athletes. Usain Bolt is the fastest man to run 100 meters. Margaret Court dominated women’s tennis in the 1960s and ’70s. In the area of literature, William Wordsworth was a famous poet. A woman named Ann Webb founded the British Tarantula Society. So why does this happen? Pelham, Mirenberg and Jones used the hypothesis of implicit egotism to explain these happenings. Implicit egotism posits that humans have an unconscious preference for things associated with themselves and a desire to feel good about who they are. The underlying instinct to make sense of ourselves in a language with 26 letters affects all of our lives, in a subtle and often undetectable way. 

Of course, most of the time, the impact of implicit egotism remains unknown to us, as any implicit bias has the potential to do. In fact, I’m certain that almost no one who hasn’t already heard about this concept came up with it on their own, simply because the effects are just too subtle to notice by accident. We jump to the conclusion that Bob is a builder by coincidence, not due to the similarity between his name and job title. 

Further, the subtlety of the bias is what makes it so important to acknowledge. If name similarities impact lifelong choices for the most part without our knowledge, what other important areas of our lives are affected by personal qualities like race and gender? Implicit bias is much more far-reaching than many of us give it credit for, especially without being aware of it. 

In one of my University of Michigan introductory computer science classes, students were directed to a website that analyzed reviews from Rate My Professor. Analyses showed gendered splits in the frequency of words showing up in reviews. For example, male professors were more likely to be rated “smart” or “genius” across almost all disciplines, while female professors were more likely to be depicted as “bossy” or “nurturing.” People writing reviews on Rate My Professor probably don’t think consciously about connecting these words to specific genders, meaning this indicates implicit gender bias. 

By this point in 2020, it is beyond doubt that implicit prejudice based on race, gender or other marginalized identities is dangerous. This is evident from the racial demographics of police brutality victims, from the existence of gender and race pay gaps and from other forms of employment discrimination. People are drawn toward things that resemble themselves on a subconscious level, and I urge you to pay attention to this instinct in yourself. It is only when the thoughts of the subconscious are put into words that we can reasonably address them. The relatively entertaining facts that stem from implicit egotism are actually indicative of the much darker and more dangerous effects of implicit bias against minority groups. 

Most of us can’t notice obvious ties between our names and our surroundings, even after reading the above examples. But if your name is Carter and you have a nagging desire to sell cars, if your name is Madelyn and you want to throw javelins, if you are Peter Piper picking a peck of pickled peppers, now you know why. 

Margaret Rudnick can be reached at rudnickm@umich.edu