The life-long curse of an unpopular name

Receiving an unpopular name can have lifelong consequences, according to new research
Making assumptions about someone based on their name is ridiculous. A few attention-seeking celebrities aside, most of us were given our names, rather than choosing them, so why should they be any indicator of the kind of person we are? And yet a new European study claims that people with unfashionable first names suffer from prejudice, with life-long implications for their self-esteem and well-being.

Jochen Gebauer and his team used data collected from the German eDarling dating website. With the consent of hundreds of registered users, they looked to see how people with unfashionable first names were treated.

In the first study, the researchers identified hundreds of users of the dating site who had names that had been rated positively (e.g. Alexander) or negatively (e.g. Kevin) by 500 teachers as part of a different project. The eDarling website sends emails to users suggesting contacts in the form of a person's name, age and region. Users specify their preferences for age and region, so a suggested contact's name is the only information daters can really use in choosing whether to purse a contact. The main finding here was that people with unfashionable names like Kevin or Chantal were dramatically more likely to be rejected by other users (i.e. other users tended to choose not to contact them). A user with the most popular name (Alexander) received on average double the number of contacts as someone with the least popular name (Kevin).

An obvious criticism is that this online dating is an artificial situation - perhaps in real life we use other information to overcome any potential prejudice we might have against unpopular names. However, the researchers also found that people with unpopular names were more likely to smoke, had lower self-esteem and were less educated. What's more, the link between the popularity of their name and these life outcomes was mediated by the amount of rejection they suffered on the dating site - as if rejection on the site were a proxy for the amount of social neglect they'd suffered in life.

A further two studies replicated these results with a wider range of names and different methods of measuring name popularity. For example, the final study simply used name frequency as a measure of popularity. This again showed that people with less popular names experienced more rejection in online dating and had lower self-esteem and other adverse outcomes. This was the case even if their name had once been popular. So it's not the case that the negative correlates of having an unpopular name can be traced back somehow to having had the kind of parents who choose unpopular names.

These new results echo earlier research in the USA that found racial prejudice could affect the way people are treated based on their name. Identical CVs were dramatically more likely to attract job interviews if they were attributed to a person with a White-sounding name than if they were attributed to a person with an African-American sounding name. However race prejudice wasn't the cause of the harmful correlates of unpopular names in the current study - nearly all the names were White-sounding. Aside from racial prejudice, what causes names to acquire negative connotations is for another research paper. No doubt the names of celebrities, fictional characters and other high profile people play a role.

"Seemingly benign factors, such as first names, add up in real life, gaining considerable collective power in predicting feeling, thought, and behaviour," the researchers said. "The results also highlight the self-presentational value of first names and underscore the importance for parents to choose positively valenced first names for their children."

Gebauer, J., Leary, M., and Neberich, W. (2011). Unfortunate First Names: Effects of Name-Based Relational Devaluation and Interpersonal Neglect. Social Psychological and Personality Science DOI: 10.1177/1948550611431644

Further reading from The PsychologistThe name game: We all have one, and it might determine our fate in a number of intriguing and bizarre ways. Nicholas Christenfeld and Britta Larsen investigate.

Post written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.
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