Mental Health | Natural Health Blog

The Impact of a Name

Baby Names, Children, Unusual Names

Apparently, Shakespeare got it wrong in Romeo and Juliet when he had Juliet utter those famous lines: “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” It seems that if you give a rose the wrong name, it just might turn out to be a real stinker. According to an article in LiveScience, there’s plenty of research to show that the name you choose for your little bundle of joy can have a profound impact on the course of his or her life. And the ramifications of having chosen the wrong name may affect your life, as well.

The article reports on a study released in May, 2010, by The study surveyed 3000 UK parents and found that one out of five parents regretted the names they gave their children, especially if those names had odd or unusual spellings. Many parents who did NOT regret the names they gave their kids still felt wistful about other options, confessing that after they had named their children, they became aware of plenty of better names that they wish they had chosen.

Names have an undeniable impact on kids, the study found. The researchers looked at boys who had “girly” names like Ashley or Shannon, and found that those kids misbehaved far more than their pals who had more traditionally “masculine” names. According to Dr. David Figlio of Northwestern University in Illinois, the girly-named boys didn’t necessarily manifest behavior problems throughout elementary school, but once the teens years approached, trouble began. “Once these kids hit sixth grade, all of a sudden the rates of disciplinary problems skyrocketed,” Dr. Figlio reported, “and it was much more the case if there happened to be a girl in the grade with that same name.”

Figlio also did a study in 2005 on the impact of girls’ names on the “fairer sex.” Through a statistical process, he assigned various names linguistic femininity scores. According to his calculations, Anna, Emma, and Elizabeth ranked high on the femininity scale, while names like Alexis, Ashley and Lauren have rather masculine associations. In following 1000 pairs of sisters in the US, he showed that after the age or 16, the girls with the more “feminine” names steered away from traditionally “masculine” subjects like physics and math. Conversely, girls with more masculine names were twice as likely to pursue these subjects.

If that’s not enough to warn you off naming your sons Shelley and your daughters Michael, Figlio also showed that names perceived as “lower status” resulted in the children scoring three to five percent lower on exams than their brothers and sisters with more traditional names. According to his research, names considered lower status have unusual spellings or pronunciations. Figlio theorized that the oddly named kids didn’t do as well as other children because their names encouraged teachers to have lower expectations of them. One teacher cited in his study, the oddly-named Edyta Ballantyne, said, “I think most people get an image in their head when they hear a name. If you treat a child differently because of their name, then they will behave differently.”

A study by UCLA psychology professor Albert Mehrabian provides corroboration. He conducted large surveys of how people react to names and produced a Baby Name Report Card. His study systematically demonstrated that people with unusual names were far more likely to be perceived negatively. In his survey, names like Robert, Rachel, and Christopher received very high scores on a 100-point scale. Christopher scored a perfect 100. On the other hand, odd names did very poorly. “Breeze” scored only 16 out of 100. “Suzee” ranked near the bottom, as did “Mush” and “Weeza.” Merabian also ranked names on parameters other than masculinity and femininity, including success, fun, ethics, caring, and overall attractiveness. Some names, like Madeline and Morgan, scored very high on the success scale, but low in fun. According to Mehrabian, “A name is part of an impression package. Parents who make up bizarre names for their children are ignorant, arrogant or just foolish.” (That’s according to professor Mehrabian, not me.)

By the way, at this point I’m reminded of a cartoon I saw years ago.

  • In the first panel, we see a classroom with the students alphabetically going through roll call. One girl calls out her name, “Freedom MacArthur.”
  • At which point, we see the second panel with the boy behind her breaking up in laughter. “Freedom? What kind of dumb name is that?”
  • In the third panel, the teacher explains that during the 60’s many parents named their children after the values that were important to them — thus the name Freedom.
  • And in the last panel, we see the boy announcing his name, “Megabucks McNulty.”

Yet another study by David Figlio investigated the impact of unusual names in the African American community. In this study, Figlio compared the results for pairs of siblings. He found a strong correlation between names that connoted “low status” and poorer performance. Even within the same family, teachers were treating children differently based on the connotations of their names. According to Figlio, boys with names like Da’Quan or Damarcus were much more likely to score lower in reading and math and much less likely to be recommended to gifted programs than their siblings with more traditional names. Figlio said his study suggests, “that the names parents give their children play an important role in explaining why African-American families on average do worse, because African-American families are more inclined than whites or Hispanics to give their children names that are associated with low socio-economic status.”

The bottom line, according to Dr. Figlio, is that parents need to be aware of the power of names. “In ways we are only beginning to understand, children with different names but the exact same upbringing grow up to have remarkably different life outcomes.”

It may be that other’s expectations of a child based on his or her name influence the ability of that child to succeed. It may also be that humans are biologically hardwired to quickly determine whether to trust another person or to run away and names are subject to this impulse. Whatever the reasons, the impact of names is demonstrable. So if your last name is Newton, please think long and hard before naming your child Fig. (That’s not necessarily a joke. I went to school with a girl named Candice Kane. You can guess what her nickname was.)

On the other hand, if you already have a distinctive name, just remember that people with names like Zooey Deschanel, Leonardo Dicaprio, Dweezil Zappa, Ashton Kucher, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Barack Obama are doing just fine.


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