What's in a name? For certain sociologists, the question might be, "What isn't?" Since 1948, researchers have assessed the effect of a person's name on their career path, economic status, and overall success. The initial findings, culled from a Harvard study conducted 65 years ago, suggested that students with more common first names fared better than those with less familiar ones. The same basic study has been replicated many times in different eras and environments, yielding similar results. What does this mean, exactly?
A recent New Yorker article reexamines this phenomenon, linking it to the "implicit-egotism effect." What it basically dictates is that we are drawn to the things and people that most resemble us. What's more, we're linked to the similar "name-letter" effect, meaning that people favor words and letters, that share letters with yours. Consider it the desired maintenance of a verbal status quo.
Inevitably, the race factor will come into play here, especially in an employment situation. In 2004, Martine Bertrand and Sendhil Mullainathan sent out 5,000 resumes around Chicago to test out a theory relevant to these ideas. The resumes were split into four groups, featuring an equal number of "black-sounding" and "white-sounding" names, and an equal division of high and low quality candidates between the two. Each potential employer received two resumes from the same qualification group, one "black-sounding" and one "white-sounding." The "white-sounding" resumes received 50% more callbacks; in fact, the advantage of a "white-sounding" resume equalled about eight extra years of employment. A similar study was carried out in Sweden, and found that applicants with Swedish (or neutral) names were preferred over equally qualified candidates with African, Slavic, or Asian names. The study also found that when immigrants changed their names to something neutral, their earnings increased.
Although there's a lot of controversy surrounding the validity and interpretation of such studies, they continue to raise valid questions about how we form judgements on people — even from an early age. Economist David Figlio argues: "A boy named ‘Damarcus’ is estimated to have 1.1 national percentile points lower math and reading scores than would his brother named ‘Dwayne,’ all else equal, and ‘Damarcus’ would in turn have three-quarters of a percentile ranking higher test scores than his brother named Da’Quan." Names linked to lower socioeconomic status yielded lower teacher expectations. For example, those with Asian names tended to receive higher teacher expectations and more frequent placement in gifted programs.
It doesn't always add up, of course. There's the whole correlation vs. causation debate, for one. When Steven Levitt and Roland Fryer controlled for a child's birth circumstances instead of the "blackness" of their name, they found that the name didn't have much bearing on their long-term status after all — but their actual socioeconomic background did. Maria Konnikova concludes her piece by asking us to consider this: "What signals does my name send—and what does it imply?" And, we'll just add that whatever your name implies — or doesn't — simply comes down to heuristics. It's up to you to establish your true worth —and grant others the same right. (The New Yorker)