Search This Blog

Friday, February 24, 2012

Your Name, Your Destiny?

Lady with the Ermine
The other day Mrs. Wolf and I were sitting in a restaurant.

Somehow the topic of names and their meaning came up.  I quick search on the iPhone revealed that mine meant "fox."   Some poking around led us to the word "stoat" - another English word (and animal).  The stoat is a type of weasel (mustela erminea).

(No, we are not talking about Lyra Belacqua's dæmon Pantalaimon though I suppose the picture right could be her.)

Names are always an interesting topic.

Recently I came across this PDF on how first names are a good predictor of income and social status.

On page 21 of the paper you find this: "It would thus seem that first names retain a strong role overall in determining lifetime outcomes even after controlling for a respondent’s labor market experience" as well as this from the introduction: "We find evidence that first name features are independent predictors of lifetime outcomes that are likely related to labor productivity such as education, happiness and early fertility."

Now this is an interesting idea.  How your parents name you, i.e., your first name, predicts much about your future.

Kind of gives new meaning to the old idea of "fortune tellers."

The paper itself is fairly long and detailed but at the end of the day they reach what I think are reasonable conclusions (specifically that your name does convey information about you outside of the obvious).  And they conclusions go well beyond simply guestimating, for example, one's race from a name.

The paper also talks about how, using a child's name, one can make reliable predictions about the parents and whether the person with a given name will bear a child before age 25!

Interesting stuff because clearly the individual with a given name was, well, given the name and had no choice in the matter.

I guess this means that, with only a couple of syllables, we can encode a number of reasonable accurate and predictable outcomes to your life...

Or can we?

The paper talks a bit about the "popularity" of names and its impact on this.

Now, over the years, I've been involved in naming a few children and from my experience the process is not so straightforward.

It seems pretty clear that a child's name has a lot to do with family, i.e., do you name the male child as a "Jr" for example or name little Suzy after great aunt "Suzanne," and so forth.

And clearly you're less likely to pick a name that falls outside your "racial heritage," i.e., Asian parents would unlikely pick a Native American name, black parents a name from India, and so forth.

In the past new parents were often relatively young, say in their early 20's, so their life's fortunes were less set and the selection of a child's name is going to reflect that as well.  If you're a social person you may gravitate toward names your peers are using for their children, for example.

And its likely your peers are going to be, well, your peers.  If you're poor its unlikely you going to be hanging out with rich folks who are also having children at the same time.  (Though again, in the olden days, mom's typically spent at least a couple of days in the hospital where in my experience you'd find a diverse mix of social, racial and economic backgrounds.)

So to some degree the finding of this paper would seem to bear out reality.

On the other hand the supposed "science" of picking the "right" name for you child has been around for a longtime, see this for example, and this site on baby names.

It seems from this that there's a lot of "voodoo" involved - parents wanting the best name for their child.  But picking the "best" name also tells us about the culture and thinking of the parents.  Did they "buy up" by going to a fortune teller or numerology expert to pick a "better" name for their child?

Then, on the other hand, there's a lot of cultural bias today as well.

For example, someone looking at job applicants might associate, say "Asian" names with greater proficiency in math or science than, say, "white" names, or a southern name, like "Jethro" with laziness.

So I think there is a bias from that perspective.

Over all I'd have to agree that, at least to a certain extent, a name does capture a lot of sociological and economic information about your birth situation, and all in only a few syllables.

I'd also have to say that my old friend Kahneman and his "System 1" plays a large role in this as well.  People have life experience with people and their names and they are going to have associations with types of names with races and socio-economic backgrounds.

I personally don't see how this could be avoided because ethnic groups tend to name their children relative to familial tendencies.  And outsiders are going to have experience with this.

A more interesting question is whether this is a meaningful avenue of study.

Clearly family history, ethnic and racial issues, as well as economics all come into play when naming a child.  Child naming is an important part of many cultures.

Why would we expect it not to convey this sort of information?

A young, uneducated white couple in Arkansas is simply not likely to pick a name popular with Japanese mothers.

This seems obvious.

I think that this study leads to a potentially dangerous intellectual idea - namely that simply "hearing" a name creates bias.  Bias as in, for example, a "hiring bias."

If I merely hear your name do I associate it with some racial or ethnic class which I am predisposed to thinking is unsuitable for a particular job?

Following this line of thinking all job seekers will have their names encoded as numeric values so that we cannot determine anything about them from their name.

Of course then we would biased by the numerological aspects of their randomizing number (here is applicant "100300666" for your consideration)...

No comments:

Post a Comment