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How Our Name Affects Our Personality and Identity: What Social Psychology Says

Recent studies found that our names have the potential to influence our behavior, physical appearance, career path and life choices, popularity, and how others perceive us.

Beatrice Barbazzeni
Beatrice Barbazzeni

“What's in a name? that which we call a rose By any other name would smell as sweet.” (William Shakespeare)

Based on research, it takes 1/10th of a second to assess someone’s face and physicality to draw the first impression. These first impressions would predict several essential characteristics, and not just attractiveness. Thus, how we look or appear influences how others perceive and judge us, although this guess might not be entirely correct. However, when we encounter someone for the first time, the first thing we do is introduce ourselves by saying our name. So, what does our name say about our personality and identity? What are others' initial perceptions? Does our name influence and determine our fate?

While we think that this fact may be pure coincidence, recent studies found that our names have the potential to influence our behavior, physical appearance, career path and life choices, popularity, and how others perceive us. Besides, even our surname may reveal something about our physique and vitality.

In this article, I discuss how our name influences the way others perceive us, treat us, expect from us, and consequently impact our choices in life, such as the profession, the places we live, academic achievement, marriage, physical appearance, and much more. Therefore, highlighting and being aware of this unconscious process would empower us more with our lives and choices.

What are a “personal name'' and “personality”?

A common feature that humans have is having a personal name. A unique name includes the first name given at birth and a surname aimed at identifying a person. Except in some rare cases (e.g., children growing up in isolation, orphans, a child belonging to certain isolated tribes), everybody has a name, and naming conventions are often determined by culture, thus allowing more or less flexibility when choosing a name. In other cases, such as in some African cultures, given names can be reused (e.g., to commemorate ancestors or those admired in the tribe), or names can even vary according to the different life stages and development.

The study of personal names is a multidisciplinary field called anthroponymy, attracting the interest of anthropologists, linguists, and philosophers of language. While the term “Proper” name is a word used to show and identify a thing we are referring to without saying anything about it, the term “personality” refers to a set of characteristics, thoughts, feelings, and behaviors related to a person, and that makes that person unique. In addition, an individual's personality builds up over time but tends to be consistent throughout life [1]. A few definitions of personality were already given:

Warren and Carmichael (1930) [2]: “Personality is the entire mental organization of a human being at any stage of his development. It embraces every phase of human character: intellect, temperament, skill, morality, and every attitude that has been built up in the course of one’s life” and Mayer (2005) [3]: “An individual’s pattern of psychological processes arising from motives, feelings, thoughts, and other major areas of psychological function. Personality is expressed through its influences on the body, in conscious mental life, and through the individual’s social behavior.”

Your name has an impact on how people perceive you

"The most important anchorage to our self-identity throughout life remains our own name." (Gordon Allport, 1961)

Although choosing a name looks like a test of creativity, parents do not know that choosing a name will influence how others see a person and what the person is most prone to become. Indeed, David Zhu, professor of management and entrepreneurship at Arizona State University and researcher in the psychology of names, said, "Because a name is used to identify an individual and communicate with the individual daily, it serves as the very basis of one's self-conception, especially concerning others.'' However, many factors influence and define the personality, such as genes, socio-economic environment, personal experiences, culture, and the role taken in life (e.g., family and workplaces). Moreover, at a more fundamental level, names also say something about ethnicity, which may lead to social barriers and stereotypes. Accordingly, research conducted in America during the 9/11 terror attack demonstrated that equally qualified CVs were less likely to attract interviews when attributed to a person with an Arabic-sounding name (compared with a white-sounding name). Even the culture can have a non-negligible effect. Indeed, within a culture, names can be common or rare. Their meaning can carry a positive or negative connotation as fashionable, unfashionable, liked, or disliked.

Consequently, proper names affect how people treat us and how we feel about ourselves. This fact was confirmed by research in 2000 finding that people who disliked their name tended to have a poorer psychological adjustment, due to a lack of confidence and self-esteem. But also, German research published in 2011 found that having a name that sounds unfashionable is most likely affecting a potential date. Thus, with high probabilities, the person would be rejected compared to others with a more modern and trendy name, leading to the negative consequence of developing low self-esteem and overall less education. Likewise, another study showed a lower tendency to receive help from a stranger if the helpee carries a negatively rated name (e.g., Cindy and Chantal) compared to names rated positively (e.g., Maria and Sophie).

So far, we have talked about “like” and “dislike,” “trend” or “outdated.” But what about trust and social connotations?

A recent study demonstrated that people with an unpopular or negative-sounding name were more likely to have been involved in crime, even when controlling for the potential influence of other aspects such as social environment, background, and demographic factors. A possible explanation relies on the fact that having a negative-sounding or unpopular name might influence a person’s behavior and attitude being prone to social rejection with the consequence of increasing the risk of developing a disagreeable personality.

Looking to the brighter side, positive findings of having a more “sonorant” sounding name were reported. For example, a name that easily flows such as Maria was positively judged by people, perceiving the person as more agreeable. Particularly when comparing this name with others sounding more “abrupt” such as Eric or Kirk. Furthermore, uncommon names may bring disadvantages in the short term (e.g., risk of social rejection, less likeability). Still, they may translate into long-term advantages such as empowering a greater sense of feeling special and unique. Indeed, the study by Cai and the Beijing Institute of Psychology team found that rarer names were associated with a higher probability of pursuing an unusual career path (e.g., film director or judge). Besides, having a unique and rare name was found also related to higher creativity and an open mindset, as demonstrated in the research by Zhu at Arizona State University and colleagues. Lastly, a study conducted at Syracuse University in New York, investigated how participants perceived the personality of 400 people with popular names over the past 70 years. Thus, 500 students were asked to imagine meeting a person with a specific name and to judge how competent, warm, or old they might be. Results showed that female names (e.g., Hannah, Melody, Mia) mainly were related to warmth but not competence.

On the other hand, names like Howard, Lawrence, and Reginald were perceived and associated with higher competence. Moreover, other names were associated with age and youth (e.g., Betty versus Britney). Therefore, the study demonstrated how names can influence people’s judgment concerning personality.

Advice: if you are a parent ready to name your newborn, be aware of the potential “consequences” of a given name. Thus, choosing sonorant-sounding and popular names would enhance likeability and social inclusion. However, even rare and uncommon names would give space to creativity, career success, and a flexible mindset to express uniqueness and originality.

Names influence physical appearance: the “Dorian Gray effect”

“Each name has associated characteristics, behaviors, and a look, and as such, it has a meaning and a shared schema within a society” reported researchers at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. In psychology, the “Dorian Gray effect” refers to internal factors (e.g., personality, self-perception) that may influence physicality, so social scientists think that even names may produce this effect. Therefore, the research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology investigated how names produce a Dorian Gray effect while influencing personality, people’s perception, and physical appearance. In particular, it was investigated whether the name given at birth would impact later physicality, thus hypothesizing that name stereotypes would manifest physically in facial look.

Across eight studies conducted in two countries, results demonstrated that both computers and humans could choose the right name for a given face with an accuracy level way above the chance. This means there was a “right” name for a specific type of face. Indeed, in the first study, photographs of young adults from Israel were presented and accompanied by four false names (e.g., local and common) and one real name. Participants could indeed pick the true name 28% of the time (and more than the 20% hit rate of random guessing chance rate). Moreover, the second study conducted in France, and thus using French names and individuals, found the same results. Besides, factors such as age and ethnicity were controlled to guarantee the reliability of the results. Interesting is the fact that also computers, based on a machine-learning algorithm, were capable of matching faces with names with high accuracy, suggesting a potential face-typing process. In addition, computers could also analyze which part of the face was most useful to define a “name-matching.” For instance, the eyes and the area around were more indicative than the margins, probably because they were highly related to expressions.

Researchers suggested that having a specific name would lead to the adoption of expected behaviors, facial expressions, looks and that people would also develop expectations based on social coding, hence referring to the “face-type” process associated with a name (e.g., the name Rose would manifest a feminine look and attitude, while influencing the wearing of feminine dresses and growing long hair).

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The sound of a name reveals a person's characteristic: the “Bouba/Kiki effect”

Even the random sound of a name might reveal certain characteristics. For example, “Molly” and “Katie” are perceived differently due to the way syllables are pronounced. Why? Certain letters and words are associated with spiked or rounded shapes. For instance, the word “buba” is associated with a soft sound shape while “kiki” with a sharper-sounding. Hence, researchers from the University of Calgary in Canada found this effect even in personal names, matching the well-known “Bouba/Kiki effect.” According to this effect, characters including the letters “b” and “u” have been associated with roundness, while the letter “k” and “i” with sharpness. Thus, regarding personal names, Leo, Molly, Nathan, and Samantha were related to round-sounding, whereas names such as Tia, Kira, and Katie with sharpness. In addition, the researchers found a tendency in participants to associate round-sounding names with female characteristics, while sharper-sounding names with male traits. So a connection between names and gender was established. However, the sound of names was also related to personalities. Indeed, “round” names were perceived with adaptability, easiness, openness, fun, and introversion, while “sharpener” names with aggressiveness, anger, determination, irritability, and sarcasm.

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What does your surname say about you?

Recently, a study compared results among the Spanish, British, and Irish populations by investigating surnames with markers on the Y chromosomes, passed from father to son. It was shown that the probability of individuals having the same surname and ancestor in Spain and Britain was higher the more rare the surname was. Moreover, in Britain, surnames that were shared by more than 5000 individuals demonstrated to have no a common ancestry. However, a different outcome was observed in Ireland, where common Irish surnames shared a Y chromosome, probably due to the smaller population size (compared to Britain and Spain) or a different demographic historical influence.

Moreover, another study found that surnames have been also associated with physique, suggesting a possible inheritance of body types from ancestors, who were likely named after their profession. In the study, more than 200 men with the surname Tailor or Smith were asked about their age, weight, height, and sports skills such as strength and endurance. Results showed that individuals with the surname Tailor tended to be shorter, lighter, and less bulky than individuals with the surname Smith. Furthermore, Smiths tended to be more inclined to perform strength-related professions and sports activities and mostly presented in strength sports. Tailors mainly were engaged in endurance sports due to their lighter physique.

In conclusion, independently of the name given at birth, the suggestion would be to learn how to deal with it to avoid disruptive behavior, particularly at young ages and in the context of school and academic achievements, as demonstrated in research by Figlio D. Similarly, another study found that a process called “implicit egotism” would explain the subconscious tendency of associating name and words to something that reminds ourselves, thus preferring those things that connect to the self (e.g., the letter in one’s name). Furthermore, implicit egotism was demonstrated to have a substantial effect on influencing life decisions, such as career choices (e.g., Dennis or Denise become dentists) or the place to live (e.g., choosing a place based on the initial letter of the name, Louis lives in St. Louis).

To know more about what your name says about yourself, read here, and how others perceive you read here.​

Is it a matter of culture?

Across cultures, communities, and countries, names differ. Similarly, we frequently encounter people having the same name but different personalities. Likewise, individuals are defined by their environment, life events, personal experiences, and attitude. Thus, having the same name does not imply being equally (un)successful in life.

The research investigated how the environment influences personality, even when individuals have the same name. In particular, the study focused on Zulu culture and Zulu personal names. In this culture, names are not given at birth but once individuals reach maturity. In addition, in several African cultures, names are reused to celebrate and commemorate ancestors. Therefore they may vary only in orthography. Moreover, the study supported the hypothesis that given names differ across cultures and community beliefs, and therefore personalities vary across individuals even though bestowed names have the same meaning. Hence, the research investigated how personal names bestowed on individuals within African culture influence the lives of these individuals within this society, while focusing on how external factors (e.g., environment, culture, beliefs) affect the personality way more than the meaning of the personal name. In effect, the choice of an individual’s name is a matter of concern within the culture. Findings showed that individuals expect to inherit the power of the given name to reflect and commemorate ancestors. Therefore, children are advised to behave accordingly to their name, shaping and influencing their behavior, sociality, and personality. Indeed, before choosing a name, parents reflect on the family history, values, and aspirations because the name teaches, inspires, and motivates individuals across generations, about religious and philosophical beliefs. Thus, the research demonstrated how personal names and their meaning vary across societies and cultures, showing how names reflect a “status” (e.g., African cultures) or a simple tag for identification (e.g., Western cultures).

What signal does a name send?

Our name has the power to influence our career path, city of residence, academic achievements, longevity, the quality and the effort we put in work, being hired for a job or accepted in a school, and even the person we would commit to. Previously, the “implicit-egotism effect” was discussed showing how a personal name can influence behavior. Moreover, even nationality and ethnicity was proceed to affect lives and others' choices, as demonstrated by the research from Marianne Bertrand and Sendhil Mullainathan in 2004, where résumés of “white-sounding names” had 50% more chance to get a callback when compared to “black-sounding names”, and even if the résumés of “black-sounding names” were more qualified for a specific job position. Therefore, the effect of “name-signaling”, what names reveal about one’s ethnicity, religion, and socio-economic background is very impactful in someone's life. This process may start at a young age as shown in the research by D. Figlio in which a child's name (e.g., black versus Asiatic) strongly influenced how he/she was treated by the teacher, consequently affecting test scores and school achievements.

In conclusion, these studies demonstrated an implicit tendency of relating names to different characteristics, to draw conclusions and judgments regarding that person and even personality. So, a tricky question is not any more “what’s your name?”, but instead “what signals does your name send and what does it imply?”

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Your name to have an impact: a take-home message

In this article, I discussed how personal names, given at birth, are the first way to be identified socially. Names have characteristics, behaviors, and physical features that are highly related to them. Thus, individuals with similar appearances and behaviors might be identified and perceived by others with a specific and identifiable name. Despite the fashionability and popularity of a name may vary across cultures and eras, and even the idea of what aspect of a person each name represents does thorough conceptualization of names and what is currently associated with it. Indeed, the way others treat us might be based on their expectations about our name, while consequently affecting how we pursue our life or perceive/feel ourselves translate this process into self-fulfilling prophecies. Therefore, being aware of this process and fact would help us make more conscious choices about our life path, behavior, expectations, and self-esteem.

“Words have meaning and names have power” - (Unknown)

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  1. Mabuza, E. M.  Individual Names and Personality: A Consideration of Some Beliefs. DOI: 10.2436/15.8040.01.86
  2. Warren, H.C.; Carmichael, L. 1930. Elements of human psychology (Rev. Ed.). Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 333. Cited in Allport, Pattern & growth in personality (1937/1961:36).
  3. Mayer, J.D. 2005. A classification of DSM-IV-TR mental disorders according to their relation to the personality system. In: J.C. Thomas & D.L. Segal (eds.), Comprehensive handbook of personality and psychopathology (CHOPP) Vol. 1: Personality and everyday functioning. New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons.
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Beatrice Barbazzeni

Beatrice is a Ph.D. student in Neuroscience aimed to achieve her MTP with discipline, perseverance and grit:“empower inner potential leading to the growth of exponential winners".