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How our names shape our identity
What's in a name? A lot.
 
A court forced this child's parents to change his name from "Messiah" to "Martin." He's probably better off.
A court forced this child's parents to change his name from "Messiah" to "Martin." He's probably better off. Screen shot

Sometimes we try to live up to our names. Sometimes we try to run away from them. But either way — and for all the options in between — your name is a crucial factor in developing your sense of self, and thus helps propel you forward on various paths of life and career.

The term nominative determinism was coined in a 1994 issue of New Scientist to describe this phenomenon. The magazine's editors noticed two instances of scientists gravitating toward subjects that were strangely linked to their last names. "We recently came across a new book," they wrote: "Pole PositionsThe Polar Regions and the Future of the Planet, by Daniel Snowman. Then, a couple of weeks later, we received a copy of London Under London — A Subterranean Guide, one of the authors of which is Richard Trench."

Maybe it's just a coincidence. Or maybe these scientists' names really did influence their career paths.

Research on the influence of names appears to stretch back at least a half century. A 1996 article called "Name and Behavior" by H. Edward Deluzain and describes a famous 1954 study published in the British Journal of Psychology:

One of the classic pieces of research on the relationship between names and behavior was conducted in Africa by G. Johoda of University College of the Gold Coast. In discussions with teachers and social workers on the formation of character in young people, Jahoda discovered that the people he was working with — all of whom were Ashanti — sincerely believed that the day of the week on which a person was born has a lot to do with the kind of character traits and behavior the person will show throughout life. Specifically, Jahoda learned that the Ashanti believe that boys (but apparently not girls) who are born on Monday will be mild mannered and peace loving, but those born on Wednesday will be violent and aggressive. [Behind the Name]

As a result, the Ashanti community has a long-held custom of including the day a person was born in the person's name. After discovering the Ashanti's custom, Jahoda then took his research to the records of the local juvenile court to see if males born on Wednesday committed more crimes.

"The number of violent acts committed by the boys born on Wednesday was significantly higher than would be expected through mere chance, and it showed that Wednesdays tended to live up to the reputation," wrote Deluzain. "When this figure was compared to the number of Mondays in the population… it bore out the superstition that boys born on that day would lead more peaceful and law-abiding lives."

Though stereotyping can't definitively dictate future behavior, it does provide a spring-board for making assumptions about a person. When a new person introduces himself to you (let's call him "Spencer"), your first instinct is to assemble a rough mental sketch of everyone you have ever known named Spencer. Maybe someone named Spencer bullied you in second grade. Maybe Spencer was the name of your first kiss. Perhaps Spencer is the name of your father. You subconsciously judge this new Spencer, at least a little, based on all the other Spencers you have ever known.

Gender dynamics, socio-economic status, and unusual spelling can also play a role in determining the behavior of a child. That's why it's perfectly fine for parents to spend a few months fretting over the potential drawbacks of choosing a child's name. Sometimes, parents desire strong names for boys, and more feminine names for girls. Most parents, it would seem, take it a step further and ask if the name they choose could be interpreted a certain way, or rhymed with a certain word that get their child teased in school.

Research psychologist David Figlio of Northwestern University in Illinois showed how a baby's name can have leave a long-lasting imprint on their lives — for better or worse, reports LiveScience. Figlio started by studying millions of birth certificates. He then further broke each name down into thousands of phonemic components, and started to find behavioral patterns.

Boys with names traditionally given to girls are more likely to misbehave than their counterparts with masculine names, research suggests… When in elementary school, boys named Ashley and Shannon, for instance, behave just like their more masculine-named classmates named Brian and other boyish names. "Once these kids hit sixth grade, all of a sudden the rates of disciplinary problems skyrocket [for those boys with girlish names], and it was much more the case if there happened to be a girl in the grade with that same name," Figlio [said]. [LiveScience]

Self-esteem may also play a factor. "People who particularly dislike their name and also if other people think it's an odd and unlikeable name, that can cause some problems," psychology professor Jean Twenge of San Diego State University told LiveScience. "[They] tend not to be as well-adjusted."

"People draw subconscious cues all the time about people," Figlio said. "You meet a person for the first time and without thinking about it on an explicit level you're looking at the way they're walking, what their accent sounds like, how they're dressed, whether they smell… and you're developing these immediate reactions," said Figlio. "I think there's probably an evolutionary reason behind that. We're hardwired to try to figure out in a heartbeat whether or not we want to trust somebody, whether we want to run from somebody."

To answer the age-old question: What's in a name? A lot of stuff, apparently.

 
Michael Hedrick
Michael Hedrick is a writer and photographer in Boulder, CO. His work has appeared in Salon, Thought Catalog and various other places across the web. His book, Schizophrenic Connections, is available here.

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