Applied Behavior Science for Health and Happiness
What’s In A Name? A Lot, If You Have Good Data
What’s In A Name? A Lot, If You Have Good Data

What’s In A Name? A Lot, If You Have Good Data

What's In A Name-When you encounter someone for the first time by their name alone–in an email or a letter, as a person referenced in a story online or in a newspaper, or when someone else mentions a person they know–are you able to guess much about them? Our first names actually offer powerful clues to our ages, which can in turn shape the way people perceive us . . . all before they even meet us.

The Social Security Administration (SSA) has an incredible database on baby names in the United States going back over a hundred years. This database can be used at its most straightforward to look at trends over time, but has also served as the basis for some fascinating analyses on naming patterns over time. It’s a result of this database that I’ve realized that you can probably pinpoint my age within about 15 years by knowing my first name is Amy. You could do the same for a woman named Ava, and you’d quickly puzzle out which one of us is older. The Baby Name Voyager lets you quickly visualize these trends:

We Amys peaked some time ago . . .
We Amys peaked some time ago . . .
while Avas are just hitting their stride.
while Avas are just hitting their stride.

As older names enjoy a renaissance, some names have bimodal popularity distributions:

Amelia is a classic and a trend.
Amelia is a classic and a trend.

Age is probably the most reliable information about a person conveyed by a name, but that doesn’t stop us from trying to derive even more. Research has shown that names can lead teachers to grade exams differently, hiring managers to select different candidates, and people to make different guesses about what someone’s personality might be. In research I assisted with in undergrad and grad school, we found that people’s email addresses also bias how they are perceived by revealing gender (first name) and racial (last name) information. Clearly, names matter.

However, it’s important to keep in mind that names aren’t destiny. There were Amys born in 2003 and Avas born in 1925. Some Lees are Asian and others not. And although I haven’t seen data, I’d guess that first name has little influence on whether someone is talented at math or a good hire. We may automatically soak in any information we can get from names, but have to remember to fact-check.

All of that may explain why this is among my favorite cartoons from The Onion:

From The Onion
From The Onion