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What's in a Name?

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By V. Claire Jadulang

Published Jul 25, 2011 12:00 AM


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More than 1,000 prospective parents have consulted Albert Mehrabian, UCLA professor emeritus of psychology, about what to name their children. That’s because he has researched the psychology of how people react to names and believes that a name determines not only what people call you, but also how they think about and treat you. Now Mehrabian, author of "The Name Game: the Decision that Lasts a Lifetime," has written a new book, "The Baby Name Report Card: Beneficial and Harmful Baby Names." V. Claire Jadulang, writer for UCLA Today, the university’s staff and faculty news website, recently spoke with Mehrabian about the baby name game.

How did you rate the attractiveness of a name?
We categorized names on four dimensions: ethical-caring, popular-fun, successful and masculine/feminine. We gave each category percentile scores from 1 to 100. Then I combined the first three dimensions for an overall score for a name’s attractiveness.

How do we form our impressions of names?
Many people form idiosyncratic associations with names, based on their personal experiences with particular people. They may also be influenced by historical figures and the historical use of names. When you think of "Alexander," you think of Alexander the Great; "Elizabeth," you think of Queen Elizabeth. These kinds of associations are important. The harshness and softness of sounds, the visual image of a letter and choice of letter at the beginning and end of a name also have an effect. For example, softer sounds might be associated with femininity and short, crisp sounds with masculinity.

What are the most popular names for girls and boys?
There is a difference between attractive names and popular names: Popular names are the ones that are overused. The popularity of names is determined by trends.

Names that do very well in my system include "Brandon," which gets a 91 overall. "William" scores extremely high, and "Bill" is one of the few nicknames that does very well in my system. "Billy," on the other hand, gets a 55.

Names like "Esther," "Ethel" and "Elizabeth" score very high on ethical/caring. "Robert" gets a 99 in my research, while my name, "Albert," gets a 54. Before my research, I would cringe when anyone would call me "Al." Needless to say, my research shows that "Al" gets an 8.

What about nicknames?
There are some very interesting differences between given names and nicknames: "Ronald" gets an 87 percentile score on ethical-caring, while "Ron" gets a 25 and "Ronny" gets a 39. Young people need to think about what kind of image they are projecting with variations of their names. People treat you differently depending on how attractive or unattractive your name is. Can you imagine someone who calls himself "Billy" becoming CEO of a corporation?

Is there such a thing as name bias?
In one study, researchers gave the same essay supposedly written by a student to different teachers. In some cases, it was labeled as written by a student with a common and attractive name, and in another case, an uncommon and unattractive name. The teachers gave higher scores to the essays associated with the attractive name, even though it was the same essay. In another study, researchers gave subjects pictures of women with attractive and unattractive names whom they were asked to nominate as beauty queens. People picked what they thought was the better-looking person when they were really picking the more attractive name.

Considering the trend of celebrity parents giving their children unique or bizarre names, does having a unique name help or hinder an individual?
A lot of times parents think they’re being clever, innovative or trying to express how intelligent they are when they pick the most ridiculous names for their children. The more uncommon a name is, the less desirable its impression. That general principle also applies when people misspell names. With deliberately misspelled names, the entire impression profile, meaning the first three dimensions, collapses.

What is the longevity of a name?
The top 20 popular names are going to be in the top 20 for maybe one decade. When I first published my books, people were beginning to pick names with high morality connotations for their children--Jacob, Moses, Zachary. [But] these kinds of names come and go.


This article originally appeared online at UCLA Today, July 13, 2011.

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