Names have power. Whether we’re aware of it or not, we all carry potential subconscious bias toward particular monikers.
If your kindly grandmother’s name was Amy, you’d consider it a warm and loving name. If you were fired from your first job by a man named Keith, you might expect cruel and unfeeling behavior from anybody else with a similar title.
Sometimes, we make judgments on names based on nothing more than how they sound. This has been discovered by a team of researchers at the University of Calgary.
The study found that soft-sounding, vowel-centric names carry the expectation of emotional, trustworthy, and pleasant personas. Names with harder sounds, such as Katherine or Kirk, are associated with outgoing, extroverted personalities.
How can this be the case? To understand this, we need to understand the relationship between language and expectations.
Words create connotations in our mind
Christian Morgenstern was a German writer, active between the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Morgenstern was celebrated for his nonsense poetry, and one of his most famous quotations was that “all seagulls look as though their name were Emma.”
On paper, that’s just a funny line. The kind of thing you’d claim after a few beers with friends while aiming to be profound. The quote had a significant impact on Morgenstern’s compatriot Wolfgang Köhler, however. Köhler was a leading psychologist of the era, and he wondered if the sound of words could genuinely form connections in the human mind.
Testing his theory, Köhler invented two new words – maluma and takete. He then designed two entirely new shapes and drew them on a sheet of paper. Surveying a range of volunteers, Köhler asked his respondents which of the shapes should be matched to which name. Before you read on, take a look at the shapes below. Which word do you think applies to which shape?
If you follow the thinking of 90% of the population, you will think of the round shape as the maluma and the jagged shape as the takete. Somehow, this thinking comes naturally, to most human beings. The only exceptions appear to be individuals on the autistic spectrum.
How does this relate to names?
There are two types of consonants found in names. The first is sonorant consonants, which are sounds akin to M or L. These are the letters that roll off the tongue without any need to stop. Say the name, “Molly,” and you’ll know what we mean. The second type is called voiceless stop consonants. These are harder sounds, like K and T. These letters, primarily when used at the end of a name, sound akin to a full stop. The name “Mark” is an example of this.
Next, we need to look at the HEXACO Personality Inventory. HEXACO is a measurement of personality based on six core characteristics.
- Openness to experience
The study from the University of Calgary found some interesting results. Names high in sonorant consonants provoked expectations of conscientious behavior, agreeableness over anger, and highly tuned emotional intelligence. Those with names rich in voiceless stop consonants were expected to be confident and extroverted.
Now, as already discussed, pre-existing bias exists surrounding names. Even if you have never met somebody with a particular name, you’ll think of a celebrity or pop culture icon. You may not have a friend named Scarlett, but you’ll immediately have a vision in your mind based on Ms. Johansson or Ms. O’Hara.
To this end, the team at the University took a similar approach to Wolfgang Köhler. They created a range of false names, with which the subjects would have no previous connotations or connection. They then asked the subjects how they expected these fictional people to behave.
True to form, names with more sonorant consonants were assigned E, A, and C characteristics from the HEXACO inventory. Voiceless stop consonants forged created images of fearless and extroverted characters.
Does this match up with real-world findings?
In a word … no. There is no evidence that names reflect character. However, it is believed that names can influence how we view people – regardless of how they actually behave. It’s a form of confirmation bias. Some studies claim that people even begin to look like their names.
This is where our pre-existing beliefs come into play. We could have exactly the same conversation with Amy and Keith but interpret them entirely differently. It seems that perception is the reality in our minds. We just need to be mindful that we do not judge people on factors entirely beyond their control.
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