Sean Cheng

The Power of Names

June 21, 2021 - 6 min read

A few months ago, a sushi restaurant in Taiwan ran a promotion offering free all-you-can-eat sushi to certain customers.

The twist?

You had to change your name to the Chinese characters for salmon to be eligible for the deal.

Hundreds of hungry customers swarmed to take advantage of this offer because, in Taiwan, changing your name isn’t difficult. For $3 USD you can have a completely new name within a day.

In traditional Taiwanese culture, people believe their name is tied closely to their luck and success in life. This is partly why the process to swap out your current name for a new one is so streamlined. It’s not uncommon for someone to change their name if they keep getting poor grades or if their business fails. There are even personality tests and counselors who provide advice on what name is the best fit for you.

Especially to Westerners, this all sounds a bit silly. But after going down a rabbit hole of studies on how our names affect us, I’ve distilled three interesting insights on how our names affect how we’re perceived, the perceived validity of statements attached to our names, and even our facial structure.

The Fluency Effect

In situations where individuals have little prior information or knowledge, the relative ease of processing the data that is given can play a large role in how we make judgments.

People tend to interpret fluent processing as a positive cue about a target stimulus, thus evaluating fluent targets along positive dimensions; likewise, they tend to evaluate disfluent targets along negative dimensions (Newman, et al., 2014).

This is why studies have shown people will say, “Hnegripitrom is a more hazardous chemical than Magnalroxate; the Tsiischili, a riskier ride than the Ohanzee, and RDO a worse investment than KAR” despite knowing nothing about any of these chemicals, amusement park rides, or investments other than their names.

People’s names are evaluated similarly based on how pronouncable they are. Simon Laham, Peter Koval, and Adam Alter found in their 2011 study that people judged individuals with easier to pronounce names as more likable and as better candidates for a mock election.

There are real-world impacts as well for name fluency. The same study found that lawyers with easier to pronounce names also tended to occupy higher positions within law firms.

The Truthiness of Claims

Past experiments have found people will judge a claim like, “The liquid metal inside a thermometer is magnesium” to be true more often when it is paired with a photo of a thermometer versus when the claim appeared alone.

In an experiment where individuals were asked to evaluate the truth of the claim “this celebrity is dead” or “this celebrity is alive,” claims paired with verbal descriptions of the celebrity’s ethnicity, gender, etc. were evaluated to be true more often than if the claims weren’t paired with verbal descriptions (Newman, et al., 2012).

Researchers speculate the addition of the photos/verbal descriptions help people generate pseudo evidence supporting the presented claim, most likely in the form of mental thoughts and images.

A 2014 study investigated whether a similar relationship existed between name fluency and the “truthiness” of claims associated with the names.

To test this hypothesis, researchers displayed a name for 2 seconds on a screen (“Andrian Babeshko said:”) then displayed a claim alongside the name (“Turtles are deaf”). Subjects were asked to then determine whether the claim was true or false (Newman, et al., 2014).

Consistent with past research, researchers found claims paired with easier to pronounce names were judged as true more often than those paired with difficult to pronounce names.

Names and Face Shape

Our names can also influence our facial appearance.

Researchers at Hebrew University found when subjects were presented with only a photo of a person and asked to choose the person’s name out of four potential options, they chose the right name 38% of the time (random chance would expect a 25% success rate).

The researchers hypothesized names come with certain societal expectations, inferences, and interactions. These circumstances can affect an individual’s self-perception and influence their facial appearance as they grow older, explaining the face-name matching effect.

Studies seem to support this hypothesis, as names have been shown to be associated with certain character traits. For example, American girls named Katherine tend to be stereotyped as more successful than girls named Bonnie (Mehrabian, 2001):

Thus, from the day she is born, a person named Katherine receives signals from society that relate to her name stereotype, leading her to act accordingly and eventually making her more and more similar to our shared representation of a stereotypical “Katherine.” Thus, social signals related to a name might affect one’s self-perception and personality, and to some extent, one’s facial appearance (Zwebner, et al., 2017)

And because personality is linked to facial appearance (Penton-Voak et al., 2006; Walker & Vetter, 2016), there may be an indirect tie between name and facial appearance.

The mechanism behind how personality influences facial appearance is explained by Zajonc et al.(1987) when he proposed emotional processes produce vascular changes regulated by facial musculature.

He found that spouses’ appearances grew more alike over time by virtue of empathic mimicry and concluded the habitual emotional use of facial musculature impacted facial features (Waynbaum, 1907; Zajonc, 1985).

Quick Summary: —> Individual is named —> Individual experiences societal signals based on their name —> Individual’s personality conforms with societal signals —> Individual’s personality affects their emotional processes —> Emotional processes affect facial musculature utilization —> Facial musculature usage affects facial appearance

To further test the link between name and facial appearance, the researchers also ran tests on individuals who went by unique nicknames (example: Louis Armstrong’s nickname was “Satchmo”). Because unique nicknames don’t have the same societal stereotypes associated with them, individuals who are referred to mainly by their nicknames theoretically should have a weaker match between their birth name and face. As expected, subjects were able to match the names to faces of individuals who went by their birth name more frequently versus individuals who primarily used a unique nickname.

Conclusion

Our names are how we’re socially identified. It’s no wonder they play a salient role in determining how we’re perceived by those around us. The perennial tension between nature vs. nurture may be never definitively answered, but social psychology research like this reveals the micro-factors guiding our fates even without our knowledge.

Omnium Rerum Principia Parva Sunt!


Sources

“‘We Look Like Our Names: The Manifestation of Name Stereotypes in Facial Appearance’: Addendum to Zwebner et Al. (2017).” Journal of personality and social psychology 113.4 (2017): 657–657. Web.

Laham, Simon M, Peter Koval, and Adam L Alter. “The Name-Pronunciation Effect: Why People Like Mr. Smith More Than Mr. Colquhoun.” Journal of experimental social psychology 48.3 (2012): 752–756. Web.

Newman, Eryn J et al. “People with Easier to Pronounce Names Promote Truthiness of Claims.” PloS one 9.2 (2014): e88671–e88671. Web.


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