The Psychology of… Your Name
Psychology of Names

The Psychology of… Your Name


Does your name affect your career choices? Can it influence where you decide to live? Does your name change how you behave in different social contexts? How you react to marketing? Find out.

Your first name and second name have a certain power. In fact, they affect you and those around you more than you might think. They can make a difference to which job you choose, where you choose to live and… which type of marketing works on you. In this article, I will write about what psychology tells us about your relationship with your name.

How Did Your Parents Come Up With Your Name?

Firstly, in the absence of any better criterion, your name is a label which the world judges you by. We all do it. Who’s more likely to have a mustache: Chris or Harry? You chose “Chris”, right?

The story behind a name is often related to the story of a famous person with that name — thanks to certain German and Austrian leaders, the name “Adolf” was quite common up to the end of the first half of the 20th century, but this name practically disappeared after the II World War. In Poland, the same thing happened with the name “Joseph” (this time, thanks to Stalin). For this to happen, the particular name doesn’t even have to belong to a real person – Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” made the name Ebenezer rather unpopular…

If you can’t decide on a name for your newborn child, I’ve got you.

Names tell you something about how old someone is and which social stratum that person hails from. A name (let’s say, Julia) often starts to be more common as a result of influences from popular culture, for example, thanks to a TV series; and that names tend to move down from a society’s upper strata to its lower strata. First, the aristocracy (or celebrities) choose an unusual name for one of their children and then this name becomes more and more widely accepted. Interestingly, such unusual names are taken up most quickly by people in society’s lowest strata. This is confirmed in the writings of, for example, Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner.

Here’s a little task for you: find out the names of Kanye West’s child and Jamie Oliver’s children. And then think if you actually know someone who is called, for example, „North”.

Does Your Name Influence Your Career? You Bet!

In order to be invited to a job interview, how many CVs does a David have to send? Does a person named Marianne with the exact same CV have to send more of them to get an interview? Two researchers from MIT and Chicago University, Marianne Bertrand and Sendhill Mullainathan, claim that the answer is yes. Of course, they didn’t investigate the names Marianne and David — they did their research on American names from which it was possible to guess at the ethnicity of the holder of that name. It turns out that someone with the name Greg (which is the most popular name associated with white guys) has to send 10 CVs in order to be invited to a job interview, whereas Jamal (whose name is popular amongst African-Americans) must send a further five CVs just to get a job interview (even though the two CVs are otherwise identical).

But the conscious pinning of a “label” to your name (and thereby pinning the “label’s” story to you as a person) is not the only thing that happens with names. Your name also has an unconscious effect on others. For example, how easy it is to pronounce a name makes a difference.

Which Names Get Promoted Quicker?

Simon Laham and Peter Koval from Melbourne University carried out a very interesting analysis of lawyers’ names and their careers. It turns out that, if someone’s name is easy to pronounce (and to remember), that person’s chances of becoming a partner in a law firm within the first 4-8 years of being employed in that firm increase by 10%. That positive effect continues for about 15 years and then it seems to disappear, which the researchers think is based on the fact that, by that time, the career of a given lawyer is based purely on his or her reputation. So, if your name is Paweł Tkaczyk and you’re looking for work in Ireland, it could be a good idea to use an alias instead… Believe me, I know.

George, Where Do You Want To Live?

On the question of where we choose to live, more people with the name “George” live in the US state of Georgia than one would expect. Sociologists from New York University ploughed through large quantities of statistical data and came to the conclusion that we are unconsciously attracted to places which have names which are similar to our own name (the names don’t have to be exactly the same — it’s enough if our initials or some of the letters in our name appear in the name of the place).

Lauren, Who Do You Want To Be When You Grow Up?

The same researchers claim that a given name may affect the job you choose to do. They tested that theory on dentists and lawyers: they found the position of the name “Dennis” in the list of most popular names and then found which name was above and which name was below “Dennis” in the list. Next, they took the register of dentists and they checked to see if more dentists had the name “Dennis” than the statistical average. And what did they find? The probability that a little Dennis will become a dentist is almost twice as likely as the probability that someone with a different name will become a dentist (1.83 times more likely to be precise). It’s the same for Lawrences and Laurens, who are more likely to choose a career as lawyers. This is known as implicit egotism.

Have a go at this: what would be a good name for a child if you want to increase the chances of him or her becoming a doctor? And how about if you want him or her to be a blogger?

The Last Name Effect

Here’s one more interesting phenomenon, this time not related to your first name, but related to the effect that your surname has on… how you react to sales promotions. In 2011, Kurt Carlson and Jacqueline Conrad published their paper called The Last Name Effect in which they claim that, according to their research, people who have surnames which start with letters towards the end of the alphabet react much more quickly and more positively to sales offers which are open for a limited time period only. In brief: if you send a newsletter in which you write that a promotion for product X will end in two days, then it is probable that people with surnames beginning with the letters N to Z will answer more quickly than other people.

They explain this phenomenon in an interesting way. Carlson and Conrad (both names start with the letter “C”, which we’ll come to later) claim that this is a reaction to children being put on all sorts of lists and also being lined up in alphabetical order. People with surnames which start with letters in the second half of the alphabet “spent quite a lot of time at the end of the queue” and, as a result, have learned to react quickly to what’s going on — they know the feeling when there isn’t enough of something to go round and they are at the end of the queue. And what happens when a woman marries a man and then changes her name? In fact, the effect remains the same because the effect relates to the name which someone had when they were a child, and that habitual way of thinking has become part of that person from then on.

Researchers found something similar in the way that those who gained a Ph.D. subsequently looked for work. Those with surnames starting with any of the letters from “N” to “Z” put their CV online much more quickly than those whose surnames started with letters from the beginning of the alphabet. So, if you’re looking for an employee who will be very competitive, someone with the name “Anna Anderson” may not be a good choice.

Ignore Those Findings. Here’s How.

One important comment at the end. Remember that your destiny is not ruled by your name — you decide what happens in your life. The research mentioned above only indicates that there is a higher probability of something occurring by proving some kind of correlation between (on the one hand) someone’s name and (on the other hand) some kind of life-decision. If you would rather ignore those findings, I will help you to do that too. A very similar statistical analysis has proven that people whose names begin with letters at the start of the alphabet have more chance of publishing their research than people with names starting with the letters from “N” to “Z”. So the fact that Carlson and Conrad have already published their findings does not mean that there isn’t somewhere a Zych and a Yanecky who have come to completely the opposite conclusions but haven’t yet managed to get their research published.

Written by
Paul Skah