- Christian Jarrett
- BBC Future
It is known that many factors in our upbringing influence our personality, from the warmth and severity of our parents to their generosity and aggressiveness.
But a fact that goes unnoticed many times is the consequences of this particularly important gift that they gave us: our name.
Parents are usually the ones who name their children. For many it is a test of creativity or a way of expressing their own personalities or identities through their offspring.
But probably what they don’t take into account is that the choice you make about your children could influence how others will view you and ultimately the kind of person that child will become.
“Because a name is used to identify an individual and communicate with him on a daily basis, it serves as the very basis of one’s own conception of oneself, especially in relation to others,” says David Zhu, a psychologist at the University of Arizona (USA) researching the psychology of names.
Of course, many factors sculpt our personality and part of it is influenced by our genes.
The training experiences play a very important role, as does the people with whom It happens time and ultimately the roles that are assumed in life, whether at work or in family.
In the midst of all these dynamics, it is easy to forget the role that names play, a very personal influence that it is imposed on us from birth and that it generally remains with us throughout life (unless we bother to change it).
The influence of names
At a basic level, our names can reveal details about our ethnicity or other aspects of our origin, which in a world of social prejudice it carries inevitable consequences.
For example, an American investigation conducted in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks found that a person with an Arabic-sounding name was less likely to complete a job interview than someone with a white-sounding name.
This is unfair on many levels, particularly since names turn out to be an unreliable indicator of our origin.
The consequences should not be taken lightly, but that is not where the influence of names ends.
Even within a single culture, names can be common or rare, they can have certain positive or negative connotations in terms of their meaning, and they can be seen as attractive or old-fashioned and unpleasant (although those opinions can change over time with the fashions too).
The names we don’t like
In turn, these characteristics of our names inevitably affect how others treat us Y how we feel about ourselves.
A study from the 2000s led by American psychologist Jean Twenge found that people who did not like their own name tended to have a poorer psychological adjustment.
This was probably because their lack of confidence and self-esteem caused them to dislike his name. Or that their dislike of it contributed to their lack of confidence: “The name becomes a symbol of the self,” the researchers wrote.
In terms of how names affect how others treat us, a German study published in 2011 asked users of a dating site if they wanted their potential encounters to be analyzed based on the names involved.
Jochen Gebauer and his colleagues found that people with “old-fashioned” names at that time (as Kevin) were more likely to be rejected, compared to people with more modern names (like Alexander).
The fact could be indicative of how these people were treated throughout life, how their names might have shaped the way people treated them more generally.
In turn, also the type of person they became.
In fact, new research to be published, also conducted in Germany, found that participants were less likely to help a stranger with a negatively viewed name (Cindy and Chantal were the most mentioned) compared to positively rated names. (Sophie and Marie).
One can imagine that it is difficult to be a caring and trustworthy person (having a high “kindness” in terms of personality traits) if faced with a repeated rejection in life by virtue of his name.
Another part of the dating study backed this up: People who come across old-fashioned names, who were rejected more often, also they tended to be less educated and to have lower self-esteem.
It was almost as if the rejection they experienced on the dating platform was a reflection of how life had gone more generally.
Other recent work similarly suggests the damaging consequences of having an unpopular or negative-sounding name.
Huajian Cai and his colleagues at the Institute of Psychology in Beijing recently compared the names of hundreds of thousands of people with the risk of having been convicted of crimes.
They found that people with names considered unpopular or with more negative connotations had more likely to be involved in crime.
Our names can have these consequences, Cai says, because they can affect how we feel about ourselves and how others treat us.
“Since a good or bad name has the potential … to produce good or bad results, I suggest that parents find all the ways to give their baby a good name in terms of their own culture,” he says.
So far these studies point to the seemingly harmful consequences of having a negative or unpopular name.
But some recent findings also point to possible beneficial consequences it could have a name.
For example, have a more “sonorous” name and that flow easily (as in English Marla) compared to an abrupt sounding name (like Eric or Kirk), then people are likely to prejudge which is nicer, with all the advantages it could bring.
Also, while a less common name can be disadvantageous in the short term (increasing the risk of rejection and decreasing their liking), it could have long-term advantages by generating a person a greater sense of your personal uniqueness.
Another study by Cai and his team at the Beijing Institute of Psychology showed that to have a weirder name was associated with a higher probability of have a more unusual career, as a film director or judge.
“Early in life, some people may derive a sense of unique identity from their relatively unique names,” say the researchers, proposing that this sense fuels a “distinctive motive” that prompts them to find an unusual career that matches their identity.
This seems to recall something of the call “nominative determinism”, the idea that the meaning of our names influences our life decisions (apparently explains the abundance of neurologists called Dr. Brain [cerebro, en inglés] and similar funny things).
Having an unusual name could even shape us to be more creative and open-minded, according to research by Zhu and his colleagues at Arizona State University.
They reviewed the names of CEOs of more than 1,000 companies and found that the rarer their names, the more distinctive the business strategies they implemented, especially if they were also more confident by nature.
What to choose?
For a future father, you may wonder if you should go for a common and popular name, or if you should give them an original one.
“Common and uncommon names are associated with advantages and disadvantages, so expectant parents they should know the pros and cons no matter what kind of names you give your child, “advises Zhu.
Perhaps the trick is to find a way to have the best of both worlds choosing a common name that can be easily modified into something more distinctive.
“If you give a child a very common name, it is likely that the child will find it easier to be accepted and liked by others in the short term,” advises Zhu.
“But parents must find ways to help the child appreciate his uniqueness, perhaps by giving him a special nickname or by frequently stating the unique characteristics of the child.”
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