How Much Does Your Name Matter? A New Freakonomics Radio Podcast

Our latest Freakonomics Radio podcast is called “How Much Does Your Name Matter?” (You can download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, or listen via the media player above. You can also read the transcript; it includes credits for the music you’ll hear in the episode.)

The gist: a kid’s name can tell us something about his parents — their race, social standing, even their politics. But is your name really your destiny?

The episode draws from a Freakonomics chapter called “A Roshanda By Any Other Name” and includes a good bit of new research on the power of names. It opens with a conversation with NYU sociologist Dalton Conley and his two children, E and Yo. Their names are a bit of an experiment:

CONLEY: Of course it’s hard to separate out cause and effect here until Kim Jong-Un allows me to randomly assign all the names of the North Korean kids…but my gut tells me that it does affect who you are and how you behave and probably makes you more creative to have an unusual name.

Indeed, there is some evidence that a name can influence how a child performs in school and even her career opportunities. There’s also the fact that different groups of parents — blacks and whites, for instance — have different naming preferences. Stephen Dubner talks to Harvard professor Latanya Sweeney about a mysterious discrepancy in Google ads for Instant Checkmate, a company that sells public records. Sweeney found that searching for people with distinctively black names was 25% more likely to produce an ad suggesting the person had an arrest record – regardless of whether that person had ever been arrested. 

The Harvard computer scientist Latanya Sweeney found that searching for her name in Google produced an Instant Checkmate ad with the text “Latanya Sweeney, Arrested?” — even though she has never been arrested.

So you might think that names make a big difference. But Steve Levitt insists otherwise. In a paper called “The Causes and Consequences of Distinctively Black Names,” Levitt and Roland Fryer argue that a first name doesn’t seem to affect a person’s economic life at all.

Names do, however, reveal a lot about the people doing the naming. Eric Oliver, a political scientist at the University of Chicago, talks about his new research (with co-authors Thomas Wood and Alexandra Bass) that looks at how children’s names are influenced by their parents’ political ideology:

OLIVER: [O]ur educated liberal mothers tend to be choosing names that are obscure cultural references. And so these are the Esmés and the Unas and the Archimedes and the Emersons. And we think this is a way that liberals sort of signal their cultural — for lack of a better word — their sense of cultural superiority.

Eric Oliver found that more educated mothers generally choose more common names, but that ideology makes a difference: high-education liberal mothers tend to choose uncommon names.

Finally, you’ll hear filmmaker Morgan Spurlock talk about his take on the names debate in the Freakonomics film.

Throughout the episode, you’ll hear from podcast listeners who called in to our names hotline. Thank you to everyone who participated. Even though we were able to use only a few of the messages, it was great fun to hear from all of you about your wild and wonderful names.

Audio Transcript

[MUSIC: Glenn Crytzer and his Syncopators, “Witching Hour Blues” (from Harlem Mad)]

 

Stephen J. DUBNER: Dalton Conley is a sociologist at NYU. He has a book coming out soon, called Parentology. It’s about – well, here, let’s have him tell you:

 

Dalton CONLEY: I think the subtitle says it all, which is, “A Social Scientist Experiments on His Kids So You Don’t Have To.” So, here they are.

 

DUBNER: Okay, so here they are. You guys want to introduce yourselves? I don’t care who goes first.

 

E: Okay, I’m E, like the letter. I’m 15. And I’m a student.

 

DUBNER: Okay, hi E.

 

YO: I’m Yo, in like the slang. I’m 13. And I’m a student, too.

 

DUBNER: That’s right. Dalton Conley named his daughter E and his son Yo. But there’s more:

 

DUBNER: Can you give your full name?

 

E JEREMIJENKO-CONLEY: E Harper Nora Jeremijenko-Conley.

 

DUBNER: Okay, so E is your first name.

 

E: The capitalized E.

 

CONLEY: The idea is that she can choose what it stands for.

 

DUBNER: Right, um, so E, you still call yourself E at 15. Do you do so happily?

 

E: Yes, I love my name.

 

DUBNER: I don’t blame you.

 

E: Once you’re called something your whole life you can’t really change it.

 

DUBNER: Yo, can you give us your full name?

 

Yo JEREMIJENKO-CONLEY: Yeah, sure. Yo Xing Heyno Augustus Eisner Alexander Weiser Knuckles Jeremijenko-Conley.

 

DUBNER: So Yo, where’s your first name, Yo, comes from where?

 

YO: I think it comes from the Y chromosome.

 

CONLEY: And that we were confounding ethnic stereotypes. So, you know, there’s plenty of Howard Chungs out there who assimilate to white America by how they choose their first name. That’s a classic immigrant strategy.

 

DUBNER: But there aren’t many Conleys who take a Chinese…

 

CONLEY: Right, going the other way.

 

DUBNER: Yo was actually born with a slightly less complicated name: Yo Augustus Eisner Alexander Weiser Jeremijenko-Conley -- the Xing, Heyno, and Knuckles were added later, when he was about 4.

 

DUBNER: And what about the order, where these names were dropped in, the Heyno and the Knuckles, whose choice was that?

 

CONLEY: I think it was just pleasing to the ear.

 

DUBNER: So the obvious question is… why? Why such unusual, complicated names? To some degree, it’s an experiment. Because Dalton Conley thinks that who you are, who you turn out to be, may be related to what you are called when you are born.

 

CONLEY: Of course it’s hard to separate out cause and effect here until Kim Jong-un allows me to randomly assign all the names of the North Korean kids, but I can’t know that I’m weird because I was given a weird name or because my parents are weird and they passed that on. But my gut tells me that it does affect who you are and how you behave and probably makes you more creative to have an unusual name.

 

DUBNER: Alright, on balance, for both of you guys, would you say that having an unusual name has been a positive or negative overall?

 

E: Well you can never really know because you can’t live another life, but I do think that I’m grateful for my name. It has been a positive impact.

 

DUBNER: What is it like to have a dad who’s a sociologist who looks at children and people through a lens?

 

YO: Well it’s trained me a lot in like dealing with other adults because, like when I was a kid he could know when I’m lying. So I got really good at lying and stuff. But, like, it kind of sucks to be experimented on. Like, all of a sudden he’s like, guess what son? You’re not getting computer or TV for a month because I want to see how that goes.

 

DUBNER: So you’ve told me about how you feel about having your name, but how do you feel about your parents giving you these names?

 

YO: Well, like, it doesn’t really weigh on me at all like anymore. But like, there’s a bunch of people on the internet that get super mad about, like, have these angry comments about any article about it. Like, my dad’s been called, like, “the retard of the decade” and stuff for naming me that.

 

DUBNER: Wow, really? Of the decade?

 

CONLEY: Quite an honor.

 

E: F-tard.

 

DUBNER: The F-tard of the decade. And does that hurt your feelings, or more like on your dad’s behalf?

 

YO: No, I found it really hilarious actually.

 

ANNOUNCER: From WNYC and APM, American Public Media: This is Freakonomics Radio, the podcast that explores the hidden side of everything. Here’s your host, Stephen Dubner.

 

[MUSIC: Disk Eyes, “Snow Angels”]

 

[Freakonomics Names Tape]

 

DUBNER: So what do you think of someone who names his kids E and Yo? That probably depends on a lot of things – your personal preferences, also your religious and familial traditions. You may think it’s clever and creative; you may think it’s silly, even cruel. Now, will E and Yo, the people, turn out to be different than if they’d been named Sarah and Jake? As E put it, very wisely:

 

E: Well, you can never really know because you can’t live another life.

 

DUBNER: You can’t live another life. And that’s why it’s hard to measure something like the effect of a name. My Freakonomics friend and co-author, Steve Levitt, he’s spent his academic career trying to come up with clever ways to measure things. And he’s thought quite a bit about the names we give our kids.

 

Steve LEVITT: Yeah, I think ultimately, all a name really does is it’s a vehicle for the parents to signal what kind of person they are. It’s really a means…

 

DUBNER: They are, and/or the kind of person that they hope their child will become?

 

LEVITT: I don’t even know if I think it’s the second. I think it really is about the parents. As I’ve studied naming, what I’ve come to believe is that the primary purpose, when a parent gives a name, is to impress their friends that they are whatever kind of person that they want to be. And I think some of the best evidence of this comes from the radical revolution in black names that happened in the 1970s. People don’t really remember this, but if you go back to the 1960s, blacks and whites basically were giving their kids pretty much the same sets of names, not really very different, a lot of overlap. But within about a seven-year period in the 1970s, names just completely diverged. And among most African Americans now are giving names that virtually no whites have. So what we saw was in a period that really coincides with the Black Power movement and a very strong move away from the initial Civil Rights movement was that names changed completely, and many black parents decided I think that the identity they wanted for their children was one that was distinct from white culture.

 

[MUSIC: The Willie August Project, “Suite for a Dancer - Movement 5” (from With You, In a Moment)]

 

DUBNER: Now, the fact is that black and white names a hundred years ago could be really different too. Black baby boys were often given names that relatively few whites had – Ambrose and Booker, Moses and Percy.And the modern equivalents? DeShawn and Marquis, Tyrone and Demetrius. Some years back, Steve Levitt started to wonder if these distinctively black names mattered – that is, whether they affected, for better or worse, the life of a kid with such a name. So, Levitt did some research with Roland Fryer, an economist at Harvard who is devoted to explaining the gap between blacks and whites in education, income -- and culture. Here’s Levitt again.

 

LEVITT: We didn’t really care about black names, per se, what Roland and I were trying to get at was black culture. So the idea was we knew that we observed really big differences in economic outcomes for African Americans and for whites. We know we observe really big cultural differences between African Americans and whites. And the question was is there any causal link between those two. Could it be that somehow black culture was interfering with black economic success? And the difficulty whenever you start talking about things like culture is how do you quantify it? How do you capture what culture means in a way that an economist and data would find it? And so what we settled on was the idea that you could use names as an indicator of culture because you know, the set of names that parents choose are very different for blacks and whites and they also reflect the way that people think about the world.

 

[Freakonomics Names Tape]

 

LEVITT: So the ultimate question we wanted to answer is does your name matter for the economic life that you end up leading? Are people who are quote “saddled” with distinctively black names facing a burden when they enter the labor market?

 

[MUSIC: Rob Bridgett, “aurau” (from Amba)]

 

LEVITT: So wanting to study names and having the right data set are two different things. But we managed to stumble onto an amazing data set that was kept by the state of California. It encompassed the birth certificate of every person born in the state of California between 1960 and the year 2000, and it included the name of the baby, the first and last name, the first and last name of the mother, and the maiden name of the mother, along with a lot of other information about the hospital and the kind of health care the mother had that gave you a hint at some of the economic circumstances. And this turned out to be the absolutely perfect dataset to do what we wanted to do. What we could do is we could match up two young African American girls at birth, say born in 1965, who are born at the same hospital about the same time to a set of parents who on all the data we have look very similar except that one of those sets of parents give their daughter a distinctively black name, like Shaniqua, say, and the other set of parents given their baby a more traditional white name, like Anne or Elizabeth. So what do we do? We follow those girls. We fast-forward say 25 years into the future when those girls grow up in California and have babies, themselves. So from when they give birth we can see what kind of lives they’re leading, whether they have fancy health care, whether they’re married, how old they are when they have babies, things like that. And we get a glimpse into their economic life -- not perfect, we certainly don’t know everything about them, but we know certain things about them. And we were able to see something quite remarkable, which is that the name that you were given at birth seemed not to matter at all to your economic life.

 

[MUSIC: Ruby Velle and The Soulphonics, “Longview” (from It’s About Time)]

 

DUBNER: Remember that conclusion: the name you are given at birth “does not seem to matter at all to your economic life.” In other words, it’s not the name your parents give you; it’s the kind of parents you have in the first place. And different kinds of parents of course choose different kinds of names. So let’s say two similar families, both African American, each have a baby girl. One is called Molly – which, it happens, is one of the whitest girls’ names in America. And the other is called Latanya, which is a distinctively black name. Now, if, decades later, Molly becomes, let’s say, a professor at Harvard, and Latanya is just barely scraping by – well, the reason won’t be because Latanya’s parents named her Latanya.  

 

DUBNER: Begin if you would just by introducing yourself, say your name and what you do.

 

Latanya SWEENEY: Sure I’m Latanya Sweeney. I’m professor of government and technology here at Harvard.

 

DUBNER: Okay, so there you go. At Harvard, Latanya Sweeney studies how technology can help solve society’s problems. In the course of doing so, she occasionally discovers a new problem. Like the day not long ago when she and a colleague named Adam Tanner were working in her office…

 

SWEENEY: He and I were working on a different project and he needed to find a paper of mine. So he went to my computer and Googled my name. And along with the links to various papers and so forth, this ad popped up to the right that said “Latanya Sweeney, Arrested?” And I basically almost fell out of the chair because one, I’d never been arrested, and then my name is so unusual that it’s hard to imagine that that could have been a mistake. And the name appeared right in the ad. So then we typed in his name, a white male name, Adam Tanner, and the same company had an ad, but the ad just said “Looking for Adam Tanner?” You know, it was very neutral. It didn’t have any…the word arrest didn’t show up, no reference to a criminal record.

 

DUBNER: So did you immediately become suspicious or did you just think this is some kind of one-off and let me explore further?

 

SWEENEY: Well right, I mean on the one hand you think it’s one-off, something kind of flukey, but on the other hand you’re like why did it happen? So we began just entering names and all kinds of names, and we spent a couple of hours doing so.

 

[MUSIC: Ruby Velle and The Soulphonics, “Longview” (from It’s About Time)]

 

DUBNER: The ads were for a company called Instant Checkmate, which sells public records. The ads appear when you do a Google search for the first and last name of a real person. But a given name search might generate different versions of the ad. Some of them are neutral, like “Looking for Molly Sweeney?” Others, like the one Latanya Sweeney found, seem to offer up arrest records. Sweeney and Tanner started doing lots of name searches to see if they could find a pattern to the ads.  

 

SWEENEY: And we began focusing on Latanya versus Tanya. And what we found in each of those cases was if you had a Latanya with a last name you got an ad suggesting that you had an arrest record, and if you typed in Tanya with a last name, you didn’t. And then Adam jumps to this conclusion and says ‘Oh, I get it, the arrest ads are coming up when there’s a black-sounding name.’ And I said, ‘That’s impossible, that’s crazy talk.’ And I eventually got to the point where I said, ‘Okay, I’m a scientist, let me put on my official science hat and start from step one. I’m going to show Adam he’s wrong.’ That was the whole goal, was to show him he was wrong. The goal was never to write a paper, the goal was to show Adam he was wrong.

 

DUBNER: The first step for Sweeney was to simply define what is a black name and what is a white name. So she assembled some data, which included the lists we created for our first book, Freakonomics, of the whitest and blackest names among baby boys and girls.

 

SWEENEY: So the white females names were Molly, Amy, Claire, Emily, Katie, Madeline, Katelyn and Emma. The black female names, Imani, Ebony, Shanice, Aaliyah, Precious, Nia, Deja, Diamond, Latanya and Latisha. The white male names were Jake, Connor, Tanner, Wyatt, Cody, Dustin, Luke, and Jack. And the black male names, DeShawn, DeAndre, Marquis, Darnell, Terrell, Malik, Trevon, and Tyrone.

 

[MUSIC: The Jaguars, “The Swagger” (from My Generation)]

 

DUBNER: In order to prompt the Google ads, Sweeney needed to find real first and last names, some black and some white. So she would type in a search like “Shanice Ph.D.” or “Molly MBA” to find real people -- some of whom were, like herself, professionals -- and then she would feed those real names back into Google to see what ads they’d prompt.

 

DUBNER: So break it down for me, Latanya, having a distinctively black first name makes it how likely to prompt an ad for an arrest record, and compare that to having a distinctively white name then.

 

SWEENEY: Well a black identifying name was 25 percent more likely than a white identifying name to get an ad suggestive of an arrest record.

 

DUBNER: All right, so you may be thinking that that makes sense because the average black American is more likely to get arrested than the average white American.

 

SWEENEY: Well, what’s interesting is these ads appear regardless of whether the company actually has a criminal record for that name in their database.

 

DUBNER: As most people know by now, Google makes its money with a program called AdWords, which serves ads that are linked to the content that you search for. Advertisers, like Instant Checkmate, agree to pay a certain amount each time their ad is clicked on. They provide Google with several versions of ad text, and they can specify which keywords -- or in this case, which key names -- will prompt each version of the ad. It is, of course, in the best interest of both Google and the advertiser to serve the ads that will get the most clicks.

 

[MUSIC: Danielle French, “Harsh Reality” (from Drive)]

 

SWEENEY: The idea of the Google algorithm is it says, okay, we don’t know which of these five versions of ads are going to make the most money. So what we’re going to do is we’re going to let the algorithm learn over time which one tends to get the most clicks. So at first, all five ad copies, say, for Ebony Jones, are equally likely to appear. So it would randomly pick one on a search for Ebony Jones and display it. If that one gets clicked it gets weighted. And so over time the one having the heaviest weight will get displayed more often. If we assume for a moment that Instant Checkmate had placed the ads somewhat roughly the same text for all the names evenly, let’s just assume that’s the case, then an explanation of what we’re seeing is it’s basically some kind of bias effect from society. So people see an arrest ad for a black name they tend to click it. But when they see the arrest ad associated with a white name they tend to ignore it.

 

DUBNER: Okay, so this is important though because when you come out with a finding like this, most people immediately want to search for the villain. You’re saying the villain might be the company, the villain might be Google, and the villain might be all of us.

 

SWEENEY: Right.

 

DUBNER: So let’s get back to your name, so when your name first showed up, when Adam searched for your name on your computer and the ad that was generated said “Latanya Sweeney, Arrested?,” take me down the road now from there to why that matters, what it implies, what it made you feel personally about your name being there, and more broadly how, what’s wrong with that.

 

SWEENEY: In terms of for me personally it was really the shock factor. You know, I had never been arrested and kind of you don’t want that associated with you. Why should that be associated with my name or my image to anyone? When I put my scientific hat on, the question was what does racial discrimination really mean and how do you operationalize it scientifically or statistically? And so racial discrimination basically results when a person or a group of people are basically being treated differently. You either give or withhold benefits, facilities, services, opportunities, and there might be some kind of economic loss or something along those lines that they would otherwise be entitled to, but that they’re being denied it on the basis of race. The other thing that I looked to in terms of structuring how this fit into societal norms versus technology was realizing that searching online, especially when the ads are delivered by such a huge service like Google ads, it almost begins to harbor this notion of structural racism, that is that you can’t help but it foster a discriminatory outcome. So two people are in contest, I Google one name and I end up with an arrest ad, I Google the other name and there’s no implication of an arrest ad. Even if I never click it, it has the difference of that implication.

 

DUBNER: So even though you obviously have a good job now, did it concern you for your future?

 

SWEENEY: No.

 

DUBNER: No.

 

SWEENEY: No, I tell you when I got really moved in that regard was more looking at the faces of the names of these young Ph.D. students and people who are just launching their careers. There was one, I forget which name it is. But I remember it was a young woman, she was so proud, she had just published her first paper, she was a graduate student in a Ph.D. program. And there’s her name, and there’s this ad, “arrested,” and how wrong that was. It just seemed so wrong.

 

[MUSIC: Crytzer’s Blue Rhythm Band, “Someday Sweetheart” (from Chasin’ the Blues)]

 

DUBNER: For the record, a Google spokesperson told us that, quote, “AdWords does not conduct any racial profiling… It is up to individual advertisers to decide which keywords they want to choose to trigger their ads,” end quote. Instant Checkmate didn’t respond to our query but an official statement from the company about Latanya Sweeney’s study says, quote, “Instant Checkmate would like to state unequivocally that it has never engaged in racial profiling in Google AdWords, and that we have absolutely no technology in place to even connect a name with a race,” end quote. So whoever the villain is here – and it may be us, the people who click – the point is that in this case, your name matters. Now remember: Steve Levitt and Roland Fryer’s research found that your name doesn’t affect your economic outcome. But you can certainly imagine a circumstance wherein Latanya Sweeney – before she got hired at Harvard, let’s say – might have suffered the consequences of her name if an H.R. person was Googling her and saw that “arrested” ad – even if the H.R. person didn’t bother to click on the ad, and even though Latanya Sweeney, herself, hadn’t been arrested. It could certainly change the calculus of a hiring decision, don’t you think? When we come back, we’ll tally up the score: does your name matter, or doesn’t it? And we will look at the naming patterns among conservative families – which tend to be pretty conservative – and liberal families:

 

OLIVER: Educated liberal mothers tend to be choosing names that are obscure cultural references. And so these are the Esmés and the Unas and the Archimedes and the Emersons. And we think this is a way that liberals sort of signal their cultural, for lack of a better word, their sense of cultural superiority.

 

[Freakonomics Names Tape]

 

ANNOUNCER: From WNYC and APM, American Public Media: This is Freakonomics Radio. Here’s your host, Stephen Dubner.

 

[MUSIC: Donvision, “Flip Flop”]

 

[Freakonomics Names Tape]

 

DUBNER: So the economists Steve Levitt and Roland Fryer went through decades of baby-name data and concluded that the name you give your child does not move the needle on that child’s future economic life. But there’s other research which finds that a name may matter, at least on some dimensions. Boys with feminine names, it’s been argued, act up more in school. A girl with a masculine name, meanwhile, is more likely to have a successful legal career. And another study, by Marianne Bertrand and Sendhil Mullainathan, was called “Are Emily and Greg More Employable Than Lakisha and Jamal?” This study found that if you send out a  resume with a white-sounding name, it’s about 50 percent more likely to get a callback than an identical resume where all you’ve done is change the name to a black-sounding name. So which argument is right – does a name matter? Or does it not matter?

 

LEVITT: I think that both could be right. There are ways to reconcile them. So let’s start with the audit studies.

 

DUBNER: That’s Steve Levitt again. The “audit study” is the one with the resumes.

 

LEVITT: So in the audit studies what researchers do is take identical resumes and just change the first name so that one name is distinctively black and another name isn’t. And they send those out to employers and see whether there’s a callback. And what they find every time is that if you have a distinctively black name you’re less likely to get a callback. So how can that be reconciled with the fact that in our data, in real life data, how people actually lived, the names didn’t seem to matter? I think the answer comes in a couple different ways. The first is that just because you get a callback doesn’t mean that you’re likely to get a job. So to the extent that there are discriminatory employers out there and those discriminatory employers are using your name to figure out whether or not you’re black, then indeed the worst thing you could possibly do would be to show up for an interview if you are black with a white name and have wasted all day trundling downtown to do the interview for a discriminatory employer who’s not going to hire you anyway. That’s one possibility. The other possibility is that there are two different kinds of labor markets. There’s a sort of formal labor market that involves resumes and applying, and really hardly anybody gets jobs that way, that’s not the typical way people get jobs. And your black name might hurt you in that segment, but it might actually help you in other areas. So you could certainly imagine that within the black community having a distinctively black name would help you get along better with people, signal that you’re part of the community, and might work in your favor in all sorts of informal networks that aren’t captured in these audit data.

 

[MUSIC: Donvision, “Indian Summer”]

 

[Freakonomics Names Tape]

 

DUBNER: All right, let’s get beyond black and white names. The fact is that your name will probably not affect your life too much in any significant way – but it can tell people a little something about who your parents are. There are patterns to be gleaned from names data – not only ethnic and religious patterns but clues about your parents’ values, and their social standing.

LEVITT: Yeah, one of the most predictable patterns when it comes to names is that almost every name that becomes popular starts out as a high class name, or a high-education name. So in these California data we had we could see the education level of the parents. And even the names that eventually become the quote “trashiest” kinds of names, so the Tiffanys and the Brittanys, and I’ll probably get myself in trouble, and the Caitlyns and things like that start at the top of the income distribution, and over the course of 20, or 30, or 40 years they migrate their way down becoming more and more popular among the less-educated set. And as names become popular among the less-educated, the higher-educated parents absolutely abandon these names and don’t want anything to do with them.

 

Eric OLIVER: We named our daughter Esmé, you know, because it’s this kind of obscure literary reference to a J.D. Salinger short story. As a way of signaling to other people, oh if you know that Esmé references J.D. Salinger you’ll know of our great intellect.

 

DUBNER: That’s Eric Oliver.

 

OLIVER: I’m a professor of political science at the University of Chicago.

 

DUBNER: Okay and what’s a successful political scientist like you doing mucking around in the baby name research ghetto?

 

OLIVER: Well, I was very interested in this question of ideological polarization. We hear a lot these days about liberals and conservatives, and particularly about how liberals drive Volvos, drink lattes, listen to NPR. Conservatives drive trucks, watch NASCAR. And I wanted to see if there was any truth to these allegations. The difficulty is when you look at consumer products is that consumer products are marketed to specific groups, and a lot of products, what may look like a conservative or a liberal product may be more a function of region of social class and not necessarily a product of ideology, per se. So, is Subaru a liberal car, or is a Subaru a car that’s more likely to be driven on snowy mountain roads, which typically are in more liberal voting areas?

 

[MUSIC: Soulphonic Soundsystem, “Mr. Sparkle” (from Soulphonic Soundsystem - Vol 1)]

 

DUBNER: But baby names, Eric Oliver figured, were a pretty straight-up indicator of – well, of something.

 

OLIVER: Baby names while at first glance may seem like a relatively frivolous kind of concept, they’re incredibly powerful indicators of status, of aspiration, of taste and identity. So we thought, wow, well baby names would be a great place to look. We were particularly interested in do liberals and conservatives have fundamentally different taste? Also do liberals and conservatives exhibit any systematic differences in how they signal to each other or to the rest of the country what their tastes are, what their values are. And do these signals penetrate more than just say something like a bumper sticker or a t-shirt with a political slogan, but actually influence other ways they sort of act, and talk, and behave in society?

 

DUBNER: Eric Oliver, like Steve Levitt, used the very rich database from the state of California. In addition to listing every baby born, it listed information about the mother, including age, race, education level, and ZIP code -- from which it’s easy to figure out  whether the family lives in a predominantly liberal or conservative neighborhood.

 

OLIVER: So as a mother becomes better-educated, she’s much more likely to give her boy or girl a popular name, and much less likely to give her an uncommon or unique name. And one of the statistics that just leaps out at us about this that is amongst African American mothers with less than a high school degree, 36 percent of them give their daughters a unique name. Now, the statistical probability that you could give your child a name that nobody else would have is really kind of remarkable. And if you think about it as an act of imagination, it’s pretty astounding.

 

DUBNER: Let me ask you this though, so you’re saying that generally, higher income families, higher status families, tend to use more popular names, but we should distinguish, and I may be wrong here, but let me ask you, once you get over a certain level of education, the most highly educated families then tend to go a little bit more into the less popular more cutting edge names, or no?

 

OLIVER: Well this is where ideology starts to have an effect. Amongst educated white mothers, mothers with some college education or a college degree, by and large they tend to favor more common or popular names for their children than less educated white mothers -- except when you start talking about their ideology. Suddenly you get a big difference here. And what you find is that conservative mothers are much more likely to stay with and choose popular or common names, but liberal mothers are now starting to choose more uncommon names.  A liberal mother is about 50 percent more likely to give her girl an uncommon or unique name than a conservative mother. And she’s about 40 percent more likely to give her boy an uncommon or unique name compared to a conservative mother. Now, there’s a big difference between the uncommon names that an educated liberal mother is giving her child versus an uneducated non-ideological mother. Our less educated mothers, when they’re giving unique or uncommon names, they’re often times taking a normal name and giving it a very weird spelling like Madysyn with two Y’s. Or they’re just making a name up that’s never existed before like Daringa.

 

DUBNER: Oh, I like Daringa.

 

OLIVER: Whereas our educated liberal mothers tend to be choosing names that are obscure cultural references. And so these are the Esmés and the Unas and the Archimedes and the Emersons. And we think this is a way that liberals sort of signal their cultural, for lack of a better word, their sense of cultural superiority. It’s a way of signaling great cultural capital.

 

DUBNER: Why don’t you tell me the central finding about the sounds of liberal versus conservative names?

 

OLIVER: So, we weren’t just interested in the categories of name, whether it was a popular or unpopular name, we were also interested in do liberals and conservatives choose different sounding kinds of names. One thing that was particularly fascinating to us was this idea that conservatives tend to be drawn to more kind of masculine, paternalistic kind of metaphors in their political rhetoric, and that liberals tend to be drawn to more nurturing feminine kinds of metaphors in their political rhetoric. And we wanted to test this out and see that well does this also influence name choice, and would conservatives choose more masculine sounding types of names and liberals choose more feminine sounding kinds of names? Well that begs the question what’s a feminine sounding name and what’s a masculine sounding name? Boys’ names are more likely to have hard consonants, to be monosyllabic.

 

DUBNER: Kurt.

 

OLIVER: Yeah, Kurt. And have that er sound is very common in boys’ names. They’re more likely to have that o like in Joe sound, whereas girls’ names are more like to end in a schwa a sound, Ella, or Thea. And they’re much more likely to have L’s in them. And they’re much more likely to end in an E sound.

 

DUBNER: Got you, so L’s and vowel endings for girls, and boys kind of short, stout, compact, hard consonants, roughly?

 

OLIVER: Right. So what we find is that by and large, conservatives choose more masculine sounding names for both boys and girls. And liberals are much more likely to choose feminine sounding names for both boys and girls.

 

DUBNER: Got you.

 

OLIVER: So if you really want to know the most quintessentially ideological sounding names, let’s compare the Obama girls and the Palin kids. So the Obama girls and Sasha and Malia, very nice feminine, soft sounding names. And then think about the Palin kids. We have Trig, Track, Bristol, and Piper. There’s Willow there too, and I think that was an ideological hiccup on Sarah Palin’s part.  

 

DUBNER: Alright, so let me just ask you, off the top of your head, Eric, let’s say that you now knowing what you know about this research were to see two houses on a hill, one on each hill, and on the one is a high income very ideologically liberal family, and in the other is a high income ideological conservative family. And they’re all white, and both families have ten children. I want you to name the 10 children in each of the households please. Just tell me what you think they’d be.

 

OLIVER: Sure, say there’s five boys and five girls in each house.


DUBNER: Sure.

 

OLIVER: Okay, so in the conservative house the boys would be likely to be something like, Andrew, Ethan, Dylan, Caleb, and Carter. The girls would have names like Casey, McKenzie, Jordan, Taylor and Sarah. In our liberal house, we would have some of the same names, because there are a lot of names that go across ideologies. So we’d probably find another Ethan in the liberal house. But we’d be more likely to find a Joshua, a Dylan, and Charlie, and Leif among the boys. The girls would have much more distinct kinds of names. They would have names like Lola, Mia, Thea, Eliana, and Ruby.

 

DUBNER: I guess the question is this though, most signaling it strikes me is done subconsciously at best, but not overtly consciously. In fact, I guess what I’m saying is most people would never admit to saying I want to give my child an x name or a y name so that people will know that I am x or y. Do you agree, or no?

 

OLIVER: Oh, I very much agree. And that’s what’s fascinating about this, that there are these trends happening in names, but I don’t think the people who are giving the names are conscious of the forces that are influencing their own behaviors and their decisions. And this is common with baby names. Everyone thinks that they’re choosing, oh, a name that’s just so special for their child and it’s only when they get to the playground and there are a half a dozen other Ellas there that they realize, oh, maybe I’m part of a social trend.  

 

[MUSIC: Winston Giles Orchestra, “Over And Out” (from Lovers)]

 

            [Freakonomics Names Tape]

 

DUBNER: So Levitt, you and I share a first name, although we spell it differently. You go for the “v” I’ve got the “ph,” I have to tell you that last time I looked, the ph was definitely the higher end of the two names, although obviously you’re higher end than me, so how much can that really say?

 

LEVITT: Yeah, my parents missed the boat. By the time they named me, Steve was in serious decline. I was the tail end of the Stevens. You’re a few years older than me, your parents were definitely hipper than my parents.

 

DUBNER: No, plus they were just looking for the good saint. But our names, especially if you combine the two spellings, we were, I think, top three or four in the country at the time. Have you looked at it lately, Steven?

 

LEVITT: I haven’t, but I know we’re almost impossible to find right now.

 

DUBNER: Let me ask you this, so when we wrote about names in “Freakonomics” we made it pretty clear that naming is not destiny, right? That was really one of the single biggest takeaways, in fact, we told the story of these two brothers in New York whose parents had named them Loser and Winner, and the fact was that Loser turned out to have a great life as an upstanding citizen. He was a police detective. And Winner had been a career criminal. And we told that story to reinforce the point that naming is not destiny. However, do you find that a lot of people who read “Freakonomics” get it or remember it exactly wrong?

 

LEVITT: Yeah, it is amazing, how everyone thinks that we said the opposite. People want so badly to believe that names are destiny. And what’s funny, I mean the ultimate is Morgan Spurlock. So in the “Freakonomics” movie, he completely, he gets the chapter on names and he does it completely backwards. And we tell him that it’s completely backwards and he’s completely unbothered by the fact that he’s gotten it completely backwards, and makes names destiny. It’s just an example, Dubner, of how you and I, we can do whatever we want -- but nobody cares in the end. People will read it, they’ll talk about it, they’ll say how great it is, and then they just do the opposite.

 

[MUSIC: Winston Giles Orchestra, “Over And Out” (from Lovers)]

 

DUBNER: So what Levitt is talking about is the Freakonomics documentary that came out a couple years ago. It was made by a bunch of different directors, each of them focusing on a different chapter of the book. Morgan Spurlock did the chapter about names. As you just heard Levitt say, the film version seemed to come to some different conclusions than the book. So we called up Morgan -- full name Morgan Valentine Spurlock, by the way -- to get his take.

 

SPURLOCK: I have to disagree with Dr. Levitt here because what we started to find in the course of making the film is that names can make a difference. And even though data starts to show you that ultimately at the end of the day for most people it doesn't at all, people are still going to do what ultimately they believe is going to be best for their child. And it may work in the end. Most of the time it doesn't, but that’s never going to stop someone from believing that the one name that they give their kid is going to put that kid in a better place down the road. Because we all like to believe that our kids are somehow more special; no matter what’s happened in the past, no matter what historically has been proven, that, you know, somehow, our one kid is going to be the one that breaks out from what everyone else has had happen to them in the past.

 

[MUSIC: Glenn Crytzer and his Syncopators, “Witching Hour Blues” (from Harlem Mad)]

 

DUBNER: One thing that most of us probably can agree on: just about every parent thinks that his or her kid is special, on some level. And part of what makes each of our kids special is the names we give them. But from what we can tell, your name is not your destiny -- even if your name... is Destiny. Or Esme. Or Archimedes, or Kurt. It is true that your name may tell the world something, maybe even something fairly significant, about your parents’ religious or ethnic background, their level of income or education, maybe even their politics. But just think about it for a minute. Think about all the things that make you you – your intelligence, your taste, your health, your work ethic and morals and decision-making – to say nothing of luck. Now, considering all of those heavyweight forces, how much could something as superficial as a name really affect your life’s outcome? Plus which: if you really think your name is holding you back, it isn’t that hard to change it. You remember the Conley family? The dad is Dalton, he’s the sociologist at NYU, and he named his kids Yo and E. They have thought about names more than any other family I know. So I figured they’d be good people to ask about this.

 

DUBNER: Let me ask you one last thing. So my name is extremely boring, Stephen. There are a lot of people my age named Steve or Stephen. I meet them all the time. And honestly it’s kind of a letdown. It’s like you meet someone new and you kind of want them to be something interesting and it’s like, oh, you’re Steve, also.

 

CONLEY: You don’t feel some camaraderie or that you’re part of a club?

 

DUBNER: Zero, less than that. I’m the member of a club that I don’t want to belong to. You know, it’s just like boring. So... but I don’t have the courage or whatever to give myself a new name. So since you guys are so good at having a lot of names and giving yourself alternatives, can you give me a name? Can you rename me?

 

E: Eyelash.

 

DUBNER: Perfect.

 

DUBNER: Signing off for Freakonomics Radio, this is Eyelash Dubner. Thank you for joining us E, Yo, and Dalton.

 

CONLEY: Thank you.

 

E: Thank you.

 

YO: Thanks.

 

[CREDITS]

 

 

Leave A Comment

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COMMENTS: 77


  1. Adriel Michaud says:

    If checkmate is running a decently advanced Adwords campaign and have good source data, they may have done their own analysis on the names that were associated with arrest records to come up with a decent source list and understand which fragments of names were more associated with arrests. Or they’re split testing the ads as suggested in the podcast.

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  2. Naomi Haverland says:

    I can’t believe my son, Rocket’s phone call got played! So awesome- he’s gonna be thrilled when he gets home from school. And you hear Roxanne scream “YOW” at the end of the call- she got in trouble for trying to ruin his well-rehearsed speech.
    Good episode too.

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 17 Thumb down 2
    • Govinda says:

      I remember a little boy named Rocket in Arizona 20 years ago. I wonder if it’s the same one. Hi!

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  3. James says:

    I wonder about that black vs white name thing. At least, when I think about my co-workers in high-tech California, ALL the American black ones I can instantly recall had white-sounding names like Mark, Tony, Charles, & Nicole.

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    • Jessica says:

      You answered your own question. “Coworkers in high-tech California” likely had parents who went to college or at least pushed them to succeed in school to be able to get such jobs.

      Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 12 Thumb down 3
      • J1 says:

        “Black sounding” names are most likely far less common in California than they are in areas to the south and east. The practice of giving your kid an African name is the southern black variant of the southern white practice of giving your kid a waspy surname as their first name. Both groups are actually doing exactly the same thing – you just don’t notice the white variant (as much) if you’re white. James probably doesn’t have a lot of white co-workers named Preston or Hunter either.

        Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 20 Thumb down 4
      • James says:

        “You answered your own question.”

        No, I didn’t. Maybe you misunderstood my question? I was responding to the claim in the article that there was no difference in economic success between black people with “black” names, and those with “white” names. Yet here’s my observation of a number of quite successful black people (they include a now VP of a major techology firm, and another with a PhD in physics), all with white-sounding names.

        Of course the question is becoming somewhat moot, since nowadays most successful tech people seem to have names like Rajiv, Satish, and Devyani :-)

        Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 9 Thumb down 4
  4. Adrian says:

    In my opinion, the name you were given as a child has no affect on what your future could have in store for you. A persons personality, morals, and philosophies control the path that person will take in life. A persons name is everything in a different perspective representing, ones culture, ethnicity, and race. The chance is, if you were born from parents whom acquired intelligence, you yourself did as well and vice versa. I am not saying one can not change his/her path, they can, but the odds look as if the kids will follow in their parents foot steps.

    Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 19 Thumb down 23
    • terd says:

      and thats why it’s your OPINION and not a fact.

      Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 25 Thumb down 7
    • anonymous poster says:

      Are you my mom? Because I was stuck with an unbelievable stinker of a name and when I was 18 I used my awesome inherited intelligence and legally changed it. It was such a relief that my whole outlook on life changed for the better and continues to this day.

      Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 25 Thumb down 4
    • ABC California says:

      I guess that you are under the age of 25.

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  5. MattPA says:

    The book “Drunk Tank Pink” says your name does matter on your economic outcome — if your name is easy to pronounce, you get ahead. Not if it is black or white, but easy to pronouncs.

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 1
  6. Scott Clark says:

    There are potentially significant errors with the analysis of Adwords ads you provided because there was no mention of reviewing the ad campaigns for the Identity name company. I wonder if these were considered? First of all, the advertiser can put black/white names into different adgroups, and give those adgroups a bid bias – meaning, despite the click-through dynamics, those ads will show more often. The bias experienced could easily have been artificially introduced by the advertiser by simply running them in parallel, each using different “dynamic keyword insertion” and “default text” settings. One adgroup could have been African-American names and the other white names. The outcome of the resulting ad displays would have been affected.

    Scott Clark
    Google Certified Adwords Partner

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  7. Neil S says:

    Love this discussion! Curious what you think of this story about the gender-less baby Storm: http://www.thestar.com/news/gta/2011/12/26/the_genderless_baby_who_caused_a_storm_of_controversy_in_2011.html

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  8. James O says:

    Is there any data/ research about what happens to a child’s education/ adult’s labour market success after changing one’s name?

    Cheers
    James

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 0
  9. jennifer lopez says:

    as a person with a common first name, a common last name, and a famous name, i wish my parents had named me and my brother something a bit more creative. jennifer and michael? please.
    1. i’ve met other jennifer lopezes, i’ve accidentally gotten both of our tuition bills (eek!).
    2. in second grade, i had eight kids in my class. three of us were jennifer. ridiculous.
    3. i’ve had doctors’ offices hang up on me thinking it was a prank call to make an appointment for “jennifer lopez”. unprofessional.
    4. everyone thinks it’s funny and tries to make a joke.

    -j.lo

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 1
  10. James says:

    When naming our children we wanted names that were uncommon but not unusual. Our daughter is Josephine (Josie) and our son is Easton (Ansel Adams middle name).

    There were other names that we thought were pretty for our daughter, but when we discovered how popular they had become we deliberately avoided them. We did not want our child to be one of 4 Emmas in her class or our son to be one of 4 Jacobs.

    I think a name not shared by many kids of the same age group lends itself to a sense of individualism, which we want to instill in our kids.

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0
    • anonymous says:

      I really like the name Easton, but what do you and his friends call him? East? Eastie? or is it always Easton? That’s the problem with some different/unusual names, there’s no nickname.

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  11. Alden S says:

    Although this video might not be ‘PC’, it does highlight the trend in black names to add a little ‘twist’ to pronunciation.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dd7FixvoKBw

    Excellent episode by the way. Very interesting insights into the causes, effects (and non-effects) of a name.

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  12. Sandy Bollinger says:

    My usband and Iwere watching an old movie where the Grandfather’s name was (whatever) the son’s was called two because he was (whatever jr.) and the Grandson’s name was three. We thought it would be cool to do that if we had a son, becase it would work with our family. So we had Charles Bolllinger, III; from day one we called him Three. He was for years of age when he foundout that his real name was Charles. He is now an adult an still uses Three, although not professionally.I d not regret naming him Three. And by the way we are conseratives with some college.

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  13. Tina says:

    Very interesting podcast. I think you guys are mostly on point, specific to our society. I’d be interested in a comparison interculturally/internationally. One comment got me thinking about this… when Morgan Spurlock at the end says that ultimately parents name their children with the intent of creating the best life for them, whether they are aware of it or not, because all parents inherently think their child is more special than the rest and that their child some special force that will carry them above the rest. I agree this might be a somewhat ubiquitous sentiment in the states, but at a global level, it could be a very ethnocentric and biased statement. If you think about the people in much more disadvantaged situations worldwide, people who live in extreme poverty, much of their outlook on life success and ability is based on their own experience- one that does not include the possibility of enhancement, stability, success or fame. While I agree with all opinions suggested in the podcast, I just wonder about the cultural lens through which the exploration of names is looked at. It’d also be interesting to see which names that have been more recently created are crossing languages (like John and Juan).

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  14. achilles3 says:

    As the only Achilles from Cincinnati, Ohio from 1983-2007 I KNOW for a fact my name mattered 1oo% of the time. For good and bad. And as the only Achilles in Korea (guessing) from 2007 to now it still matters for sure.

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  15. F.D. Stein says:

    Loved this podcast; sorry you guys did not find the developer my company worked with in the 1980′s. He was from Oklahoma; his name was Never Fail. His brother was named Will Fail. Never (and his son Never Fail Jr.) were quite successful, and dashing examples of real estate developers at the time.
    Here in SE Tennessee the family rules require repeated reuse of the same names, but never a “Junior.” I am named for my two uncles.

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    • anonymous says:

      So what happened to Will Fail? Did he?

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      • F. D. Stein says:

        I don’t think Will Fail did fail (I don’t really know), but Never Fail’s companies were devastated by the Tax Law changes in 1986; I am not sure what became of them. I think the company name was Never Fail Builders. They were first class operators as far as I was concerned. Their Project Manager was a former major league baseball player named Bill Severns.

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  16. Jeff Freeze says:

    The question that came to my mind while listening involves the economic future of the parents after they name children. Since it is common to have kids prior to fully achieving economic security or prosperity, was there a relationship between the names given and the economic outcome for parents, say 20 years later? In other words, I may be conservative and white, thereby naming my kids more conservatively, was that a predictor to my economic outcome in life?

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  17. michael says:

    Your dataset only runs until 2000. Does your finding “which is that the name that you were given at birth seemed not to matter at all to your economic life” hold validity in 2013? I especially wonder this since “googling yourself” or “ego surfing” was first mentioned around 1995 or so and LinkedIn and Facebook were founded in 2002 and 2004, respectively.

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  18. Caleb B says:

    In Tulsa there used to be a doctor named Safety First – named from Birth. Word on the street was that his sister was named Ladies.

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  19. Katie Falkenberg says:

    My name is Katie Falkenberg. The Katie part isn’t that exciting, but there aren’t a lot of Falkenbergs, at least not on my father’s side of the family, not that I know of.

    Funny thing is, I started doing some photojournalism work about a year ago and this past summer wound up talking to a reporter who gave me a very perplexed look when I told her my name.

    There’s another Katie Falkenberg! And coincidentally she is…a photo journalist. Turns out, we’ve even covered some of the same topics.

    Weird…

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  20. Debbie Gail says:

    Why did my parents name all five of their children with their first names starting with the letter “D”?

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  21. Brittany says:

    Hey, Brittany is not a trashy name!!! Destiny, on the other hand…

    The worst is Nevaeh, aka Heaven spelled backwards. Blech!

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  22. Enter your name... says:

    Many upper-middle-class parents “Google test” their kids names these days. I wonder if names that turn up with “Arrested?” ads are less likely to be chosen.

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  23. chickenfog says:

    “Eyelash”.

    Soooo sweet.

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  24. Rob says:

    I really enjoyed the podcast, and definitely think there was some truth to it here in Ireland. During the Celtic Tiger, there was definitely a trend to choosing baby names that were of irish origin or were irish themselves, such as Ronan, Ciaran and Sean for boys. I don’t have any figures for it but I think the trend was even stronger for girls names: Aoife, Ciara, Aine, Caoimhe and Niamh.
    I don’t know why this occurred. Maybe the feeling that as the economic conditions of the country improved, parents subconsciously thought that irish society was becoming more “cosmopolitan” and were afraid of losing a cultural link, so wanted to strengthen it through the name they picked for their new baby.
    There was also a trend to enrol children in primary schools which taught lessons primarily through the irish language rather than english. Perhaps this occurred for similar reasons as the name choices?
    Also interestingly, the trend for education and the trend for baby names seems to have continued past the crash of the tiger and on into the recession.

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  25. mhenner says:

    Dubner let Dr. Olliver get one by him, saying:
    “So, is Subaru a liberal car, or is a Subaru a car that’s more likely to be driven on snowy mountain roads, which typically are in more liberal voting areas?”

    Is he talking about liberal Montana, Wyoming, the Dakotas and Colorado?

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  26. Sherie says:

    Hah! I was at a dinner party years ago when I lamented that I chose not to have children solely because I wanted to name my daughter “Shabumba” and my son “Diaper” as a sort of social experiment. At that point, someone asked if I had read Freakonomics. At that time, I had not read it, but I quickly remedied that and became a loyal fan.

    I still wonder what would have become of little Diaper and Shabumba…

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  27. jess says:

    I heard name really matters in Hong Kong… basically, is your name Cantonese sounding or Mainland sounding.

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  28. J. B. says:

    We listened to a *lot* of Freakonomics (and a bit of other economic podcasts) during a difficult pregnancy and ending up picking the name “Kai” after Kai Ryssdal. Freakonomics was an engaging and thought provoking escape during a very difficult time. Thankfully our son was born healthy and fine (and a week overdue so he could make a snazzy entrance to the world with an 11/11/11 birthday)!

    This podcast gave me a smile because I have a reputation for being eccentric and both my spouse and I are a little “outside the norm”. Many people were convinced we’d name the baby after a rock star or a character from an epic fantasy novel and here we named him after an economists on public radio. =p

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    • Lassie says:

      I LOVE that name, ‘Kai’. I’ve always loved it since hearing it years ago (schoolmate). Good for you for picking something unusual, but not outrageous. (Would like to point out, however, it is the name of one of the characters on the weirdest sci-fi show ever put on film, which is “Lexx”. I could describe it, but you wouldn’t believe it.)

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  29. Luka says:

    This sounds oddly familiar to the chapter in the freakonomics books.

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  30. Michael Rochelle says:

    I love the Freakonmics podcasts. However, what this particular episode taught me is that no matter how many studies there are out there, someone will find or create a study that shows the opposite. All my life I’ve heard the studies show that a Janisia or Jamal will have a more difficult time getting called in for an interview than a Julie. Thus, I find it hard to believe that the findings show that your name doesn’t define your opportunities and who you are in life. Once you get the job then it’s on you to show what you can do regardless of your racial background, but knowing that racism is still very much alive and well, if there is the potential that you won’t even get an interview based on your name alone, I just don’t get how the outcome could be that names don’t matter when studies already show that people with more “ethnic friendly” names have more opportunities to interview for jobs than those with more ethnic names.

    Also, Latanya Sweeney’s example is great, but we can’t go with a few outliers and act as though they represent the norm. How many Black CEO’s and senior level executives are there out there compared to Whites? Is the percentage in proportion to the population makeup by race? If no, why is that the case? Are we saying that Whites are able to get more callbacks based on names/credentials than Blacks, but somehow performance at the interviews nullifies the fact that fewer Blacks even make it to the interview stage? Doesn’t make sense to me. You can’t get in the door for an interview based on your name alone, but it doesn’t have an effect on your economic life. Let’s ask some of those people who have to send out 15 resumes based on their names compared to the 10 that others have to send out and see how they feel about the economic impact.

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 0
  31. Mark Collier says:

    I bet if you assumed the company was targeting names most likely to have a criminal record by similarly looking at the most common/popular names of criminals you would find that many of those names were “black”.

    Thus how can Sweeney determine the direction of causality; it could be that the company is targeting criminals who happen to have black names or it could be they target black names which happen to be more likely to be criminals.

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  32. Michelle says:

    My name is Michelle. My parents named me after the Beatles song. However since I was about 8 years old I have been nick named Mushy. Strangely enough, even as an adult of 28 years old, hearing my real name is almost uncomfortable to me. It feels wrong like that’s not my name. Not only did my family not call my by my legal name, even school staff and administration called me Mushy. Even though the podcast says that names are not destiny I believe that being called Mushy changed who I grew up to be. Teachers remembered me better, I stood out among my peers more than if I had just been called Michelle. Being called Mushy gave me an advantage. It was a great conversation starter, being somewhat comical, it lowered tensions, and I think people expected me to be a funny person, so I played into that. I know that all the facts have been presented, but I still struggle to believe that a name is not more destiny than my parents expression of who they are.

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    • Lassie says:

      I’m glad you weren’t warped, Mushy. I have to say every Michelle I’ve ever known has been called “Mitch”. Only one was called “Shelley”.

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  33. Mike says:

    This isn’t “Big Data” or some mysterious algorithm, it’s economics at work: companies bid for ad keywords, and given the much higher rate of arrests and convictions among African Americans, more companies selling services related to arrests bid on those names.

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  34. Will Gourley says:

    I am half of the parents of a 17 year with the names William D Storm. We had decided to put the D in the middle for Danger, so he could say that danger is my middle name.
    Nice podcast…as always.

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  35. gevin shaw says:

    People read ads?

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  36. Ven Vardin says:

    I am the first born of my family. My parents were convinced I was going to be a girl (there was no test available then). The spent a lot of time and decided that Valerie was the best name for a girl. When I was born a boy, they discussed it quickly and decided that Valerie is a boys name in Russia and that is my heritage so decided to stick with Valerie. When my father filled out the form he decided that I should have his name: Stephen Vardin, no middle name, no junior. Despite my mothers objections the birth certificate was recorded and I had exactly the same name as my father.
    At home he was Steve and I was always Stephen. I do not even hear people if the call me Steve. Whenever I introduce myself as Stephen, people automatically call me Steve, which is NOT my name. While in college it hit me, start a new nickname for Stephen: Ven. And that has worked since.
    For the spelling I used Phen or ‘phen for awhile but decided easy is best and settled on Ven. In crowded noisy situations I say my name is Ven, and people hear Sven, which works fine. Sven is Stephen in Scandinavian and that often gets the conversation rolling.
    So be bold, you can have whatever name you tell people. Try out new names at large parties. We had a party once were everyone got a name tag that said HELLO MY NAME IS CHRIS. What a great ice breaker and an easy way to get everyone to talk together: you couldn’t forget a name, everyone’s name was Chris.
    I have always been interested in how names influence a persons personality and station in life. I enjoyed your podcast, but since nothing really definitive has been determined I will wager that the right questions haven’t been asked. One of them might be: Are you satisfied with your given name? If not: have you changed it? or why haven’t you changed it?

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  37. Katrina Alvarez says:

    Sorry, Yo, but Ratziel Timshel Ismail Zerubbabel Zabud Zimry Pike Blavatsky Philo Judaeus Polidorus Isurenus Morya Nylghara Rakoczy Kuthumi Krishnamurti Ashram Jerram Akasha Aum Ultimus Rufinorum Jancsi Janko Diamond Hu Ziv Zane Zeke Wakeman Wye Muo Teletai Chohkmah Nesethrah Mercavah Nigel Seven Morningstar A. San Juan CCCII has you beat: http://newsinfo.inquirer.net/412195/student-enrolls-using-41-names#ixzz2TtPRo4eq

    Ratziel has 41 names (including surname); his older brother Ramuel has 20, and his older sister Ramille has 25.

    Says their dad:

    “My first child was born, but I was not happy when people in charge of her documents showed little imagination,” San Juan told the Inquirer by telephone from Urdaneta.

    “The form had a very short empty line where I was expected to fill out with my daughter’s name. I asked, ‘What if I decide to give my child a longer name?’ and got the reply, ‘You can’t do that.’”
    “So I decided that I could do just that,” he said.

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  38. Boedicea says:

    I am white, I’m Irish, my name it’s Irish. It’s Boedicea pronounced ‘Boh-Dih-Ka’ I live in Canada, Irish ethnic names are not common and no one knows how to pronounce my name. I think it has influenced my life. I am currently well in to Irish Dance, going to Anaheim for National’s this July. My plan for adulthood is to become a certified Irish Dance teacher. In my family i am the only one who went for the Irish things. My two brothers, Erik and Kristoffer, named with traditional Norweigian names to go with their family name Knutsen, have not gone to the Irish culture that I have, both marrying “all-american” type women, working average jobs.

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  39. gretl collins says:

    Obviously my name is unusual, but my parents didn’t want to make my name different for difference sake. My art educator’s mother’s mentor was an Austrian Jew, Viktor Lowenfeld, an art educator. Viktor’s wife was Margaret, whose nickname was Gretl. A friend of both, my mother named me Gretl. Without the “e” between the “t’ and “l”. How weird is that? So I was saddled with not only a story-book name, but spelled uniquely. As a small child and an adolescent, it was brutal. But later, I embrace my name and have enjoyed it ever since.

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  40. Emily says:

    I just listened to this episode, and wanted to share a couple of observations of my own about having an extremely common name (Emily) and how it might have real-world effects. The most obvious ones I’ve encountered (well, not counting how often I am walking down the street and hear my name, only to turn around and discover that it was meant for someone else) have to do with domain names and web searches. I also have an extremely common last name, and when I went to register my own domain using my name, I had to be somewhat creative to come up with something that was simple and easy to remember and used my name, but wasn’t already taken. The same is true with things like Gmail addresses, user names, etc.
    In my professional life, it is useful to me (like many people these days) to be easy to find using Google. But with a very common name, it’s harder to make myself easy to find. That said, I suppose that if there was embarrassing material about me kicking around the internet, it could easily stay buried under all the other results my name generates.
    My father’s first name is also very common, and the combination of his first and last name is exceptionally so. He has a whole slew of stories about misdirected mail when he lived on the same street as another guy with his name, professional confusion when he worked in the same department as another one, ran into credit problems of other people with his name, etc.
    None of these examples are exactly earth-shattering; just more of life’s little annoyances.
    By the way, I’m a musician in a relatively small, obscure field. One of my current projects is an ensemble consisting entirely of Emilys.

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  41. donvision says:

    Thanks for using my music in your episode!

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  42. Rachel M says:

    A teenage girl named “E”…. I’m sure she does love her name, she’s probably very popular at parties. Now “Yo”, Yo is the street name for crack, which is much more frowned upon than ecstasy. Seriously. I am not a drug user. I am not a teenager. I do not live in a poor or wild area. I am an educated mother of two and old enough that I lie and say I’m 27. If I met these kids in public, I would immediately think these were “party names”.

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  43. QJ says:

    The question I get all the time is ‘what does QJ stand for?’ Truth is, it stands for whatever you want. Is it my real name? Yes. Is it on my passport? Yes. Next question!

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  44. Empathy is a good thing says:

    I have to disagree vehemtly with Mr Levitt about the interviewing process and pre-screening of ethnic names. He speaks like such an outsider! I worked at a companies ( I am Latino or “Hispanic” born in the USA) where HR would pass out resumes and departments would rule out interviwing decisions not based on resumes for even entry level jobs but because of last names only. It was not based on racism, according to Levitt on the radio – it would not matter because a racist company would not hire them if they got an interview black skin or not anyway so they should look for work in another demographic, maybe working with the black demographic.. I almost spit out my water! He said something like someone in that group could work well with someone looking for African-American sub-group and a white person would not. Oh that’s like black actors can work in black sponsored films and white people can’t. That’s why when you see a person of color in a blockbuster you know they will be the best! It’s a hard school to get into…

    Let’s say someone went to Oakland High School. I was told when I tried to hire a new graduate to file when I was a supervisor 18 years ago in Oakland, right near Oakland high not to hire anyone from Oakland High to filem I said why not? Well I did anyway, I said how they are supposed to get jobs! Skills test, no attitude had conversation, she chewed gum in the interview and I told her, dont chew gum n the interview and explained that to her she ran & threw it outm she didn’t know but she listened. She was 17 years old, give her a chance!. She could learn. She was bright. She just didn’t know YET duh and it was entry level and she worked hard. If everyone ruled out a high school or a name assuming that it would not work out, is this the problem in America? This was 18 years ago!…did we create this problem! She was lucky I was taught by my family to give people a chance. It’s pretty easy to do.

    Okay on the name theory, Steve Levitt says that it does not matter. Steve Levitt postulates that it is not the name that mattersm it is racism on NPR re-podcast tonight. Without any discussion from the moderator they seem to make this point that if an employer is racist it is better not to waste the time of the applicant anyway because once he or she gets there they wil ot get hired anyway since it is a racist company anyway. Such fatalism! Why bother. Learned helplessness. WHOA! So no matter if the brightest most articulate person showed up with an ethnic name, there is no way an employer would be pleasantly surprised? First of all, if my manager would have thrown out that resume, that young girl would not have had her first job out of high school. She got “in the door! She rried harder than most people and I explained it to her normally like a teacher would and she watned to work and learn. Employers are more afraid that the ethnic person that walks into the door will FIT their stereotype and they also may be cowards and watch too many new shows that focus on the bad that happens. If someone walked into the door wth a professional proposal that blew them away, it may just change their minds. I can’t believe he said that ! In my own experience as manager in borh large and small companies, it’s just that people don’t want to waste their time but not everyone is that way. In a small company they will admit it, in a big company they will be politically correct. Everybody deserves a chance. Everyone knows that geting n the door is half the battle so to say to some interviewee that they are better off not wasting their time (hey they are looking for a job and not worried about what elitist names to give their children -sorry couldn’t help it :) I am glad that your family did not change their name. Hopefully you did not change your name from Levitan to Levitt because it was better for your children. Boy you should listen to what you are saying to someone. You are assuming that everyone that goes for an interview is going for a high echelon job. I can’t believe that you got away with these comments n the interview.. somethng like “Maybe a black person would be better served in an area that worked with his own community and a white person would not …did you really say someting like that?” Let’s just all go hang out in our white and black worlds, the Islam and Jewish world and the born again Christian world and the intellectual bourgeoisie. I would like the latter but I don’t think it really exists in the practical realm. We are talking about real people here. I am glad they had someone come after you. If you are teased mercilessly about your name particularly if you are the only person of your ethnic group in an area and are bullied -somehow the cowards are the worse bullies and don’t empathize with anyone. Maybe I am overly sensitive but having been bullied myself they think it is funny.

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  45. Paul Otterson says:

    This sounds interesting

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  46. Keylan Taylor says:

    i hope this help

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  47. Teto Kasane says:

    I don’t really understand completely how names affect a personality.

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  48. guest says:

    I guess your name does affect your future. I will always remember the day in highschool when a sophomore who I had met a few days before told me that she only remembered my name because it was a white name.

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  49. stefanmilkovski says:

    haha

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  50. Bob says:

    Checkmate’s a scam site anyway. Stay off of it.

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  51. makayla says:

    why deos my name matter ?

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  52. Elizabeth says:

    Is Aelita an ok name?

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  53. javier says:

    What does my name mean

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  54. Carlie says:

    I had never liked my name, it made me feel older than i am and it was unattractive. I decided to legally change it and whilst some people had trouble getting used to it, i can honestly say that i my life has changed for the better.

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  55. Ribiangwanmi kharpran says:

    I really want to be rich and famous

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  56. Sher says:

    Has this been followed up with an analysis of the impact of names in perpetuating racism, social inequality, power structures beyond the AdWords issues? World leaders, country economic/educational development, individual family net worth/power/politics? Online success for those with “invisible” for gender or race names? Even sports teams successes?

    I’ve always been struck that the first “job” recorded in the Bible story was God having Adam assign names to all the living creatures. Names matter.

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  57. Graham Clelland says:

    The BBC have jut published this article on the same subject today:

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-26634477

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  58. sriram says:

    Names really are powerful. In Indian spirituality it is often stressed for seekers to continuously chant divine names, particularly the phrase “Hare Rama Hare Rama Rama Rama Hare Hare; Hare Krishna Hare Krishna Krishna Krishna Hare Hare”. If I were to write the book “The World: As I See It” I would say names are everything ..I’ve been observing for quite some time and the journey has been amazing. Recently, for example, I discovered that American race driver Kyle Busch has dominated the Busch Series of NASCAR over the years and there is no connection between Anheuser-Busch, the corporate entity after which the series is named and Kyle Busch. So he just happens to have the right name. Many examples abound and available upon request :-)

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  59. Kristine Pommert says:

    This is very interesting. We’ve just had a group of people in the studio to discuss specifically whether a name that points to a minority religious background can be a problem in the UK job market – and what to do about it. The audio is here: http://bit.ly/1mHDXMz

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  60. Ronneyle says:

    This is crazy!

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  61. Brittany says:

    Found site on reddit.com

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  62. G. Alcazar says:

    Besides blaming google, checkmate or society itself there is, of course, another possibility which was overlooked in this episode.

    If checkmate has a database of public records (birth, death, arrest, ect.) and let’s say for a first name “X” some percentage (maybe >10%) of all their records match arrest records. Then when a full name is searched which includes first name “X” the arrest ad is displayed.

    If this is the kind of algorithm used then the onus is on the data-set itself. This may or may not be the case but it’s a possibility.

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  63. Chimezie Okobi says:

    Hello Professors:

    First of all, I LOVE your Freakonomics podcasts and the book and I hope to make it to one of your live NYC tapings when you make it back to the City. In regards to your most recent re-broadcast on “How Much Does Your Name Matter,” I openly wondered what the economic impact is in a name, especially if you/research has shown that many corporations (knowingly and unknowingly) deny candidates on interviews based on the candidates’ names and many more are not even making an attempt to call certain candidates because of the names on their resumes.

    I believe that the small, tangible benefit of being recognized by your community (Latino, Black, etc) is miniscule compared to the overriding agony these people with non-traditional names will encounter in the professional/corporate world. And any small benefit you may receive from your name in your localized community is offset by the hundreds of thousands of dollars the community collectively misses out on because its members are not being hired/interviewed at better paying positions. Thus, Professor Dubner’s conclusion that there is a “benefit” of having a name that is recognizable/relatable to the community is nil if that person will not receive a fair share (opportunity) in the job force.

    Your rebroadcast was especially relevant because this past week, the media harped on the fact that the tech world (Google, Facebook, Twitter, Microsoft, etc) has been severely lacking in diversity initiatives even as it seeks to build its business model on making products for all consumers, these companies (by their actions of hiring) do not believe a diverse brand of employees helps create such a model. Thus, my questions to you and your team is:

    1) Is there any tangible way we can determine how much money is lost by minority communities because they’re being pre-disqualified because of their names on resumes?
    a) How much money is gained by people with “traditionally” accepted Anglo-Saxon/biblical names?
    b) Can we tangibly project how much this creates/enhances the economic disparity between the average person over the course of a generation (~20 years?)

    2) Is there any way to determine how much money/earning potential these individuals lose out on because their not being interviewed/selected to high paying jobs?

    3) Do you see any change in the interview process in the future? (ie., would it be feasible for an economic system/test to be created to calculate what a person’s actual qualifications for any given position could be?

    Thank you and I hope to hear a newly updated broadcast on names and how a name continues to affect affluence and access to affluence in the future. Thank you for your economic take on these things.

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  64. Siddhartha Kumar says:

    Pls send me success rate of my name

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  65. Master Bruce says:

    You guys must be sick to assume with all the evidence you have presented that a person’s name doesn’t affect their destiny. I am a graduate student in electrical engineering, during my undergraduate career I was the top of my class. My first and last name is very ethnic(African). As from the second year of study we are supposed to find internships. I had such a hard time finding an internship that its at the end of my fourth year that I finally got one after everyone else in my class and after presenting my middle name(a typical western name) as my first name. Keep in mind I was one of the most involved in activities in my class, the most experienced in engineering projects and all our resumes were prepared under strict supervision of the Co-op director. Also keep in mind when I say I had no internships, I mean I never got any call backs or emails. At some point I considered dropping out. Whats the worth of being top if you cannot even land an internship. Tell me how that wouldnt affect my destiny folks.

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