Forecast: There Will Be No More Cash in 2012

An interesting fact: the faster that a new baby name becomes popular, the faster it will die out. At least that’s the conclusion of a comprehensive study of naming patterns in both France and the U.S. by my Wharton colleague Jonah Berger and co-author Gaël Le Mens.

The econometrics of these things can be tricky, but this chart of the frequency of three names through time gives the main intuition of their result:

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Here you see the adoption curves, and later abandonment, of three names that were about as popular at their peaks. Charlene‘s popularity built slowly in the first half of the 20th century, peaked around 1950, but then stayed quite popular throughout the second half of the century. But Tricia and Kristi both became popular almost overnight, only to disappear just as quickly.

In a follow-up survey, the authors found that expecting parents are less interested in giving their kids names that have caught on quickly, in part because they perceive that these names may be short-lived fads. And so abandonment patterns mirror adoption.

Armed with this study, I’m ready to make a bold prediction: there will be no more Cash in the United States in 2012. Let me explain, before I upset my friends in monetary economics. According to the Social Security Administration the name Cash has become increasingly popular; it hadn’t been in the top-1,000 list for over a century, until 2003, when it rose to 972nd. Cash has since enjoyed a rapid rise, and in 2008 it was the 253rd most popular name. If Berger and Le Mens are right, then Cash is probably not too far from disappearing back into obscurity.

O.K., names are interesting and all, but is there a broader business lesson here? I think there may be. And I’m betting that none of us will be talking about Twitter in a few years.

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  1. charles says:

    Twitter – vs. Cash, it has only the potential of evolution on it’s side.

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  2. Shaun G says:

    Here’s a challenge for someone who wants to build on this finding:

    Find out which baby names have the lowest “popularity slope,” which should be an indication of their future staying power.

    Any predictions?

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  3. Shay Guy says:

    So what baby names are most characteristic of each decade?

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  4. bb says:

    OK I’m not a fan of twitter. . .. at. . . . all. . .

    But thats a bold prediction – and I think I would take you up on that.

    Otherwise, enlightening post.

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  5. Jason says:

    That’s a pretty neat observation. It reminds me a bit of epidemiology, in so far as a highly virulent pathogen will not be able to sustain itself, because it will have used up all potential hosts too quickly. The names with staying power are likely the names which get passed along from generation to generation, rather than those which become suddenly popular. Also, someone I know pointed out to me that WolframAlpha (www.wolframalpha.com) will return historic US name popularity data for any name.

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  6. Michael F. Martin says:

    Since we’re throwing out crazy ideas, how about the cross-elasticity between the short-lived names and their alternatives as an explanation for the observable time-frequency distributions?

    Charlene has few close substitutes, Tricia and Kristi many. Maybe the “Tricia” and “Kristi” babies are only one equilibrium among a set that are similar enough to see naming shifted around among them.

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  7. Caliphilosopher says:

    #4 – I think you’re absolutely right. Saying the same thing will happen to Twitter as to popular baby names is pretty sketchy.

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  8. Michelle says:

    I think (hope) the demise of Twitter will take a few months rather than years.

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