How Much Does Your Name Matter?

Season 4, Episode 2

When Harvard professor Latanya Sweeney Googled her name one day, she noticed something strange: an ad for a background check website came up in the results, with the heading: “Latanya Sweeney, Arrested?” But she had never been arrested, and neither had the only other Latanya Sweeney in the U.S. So why did the ad suggest so? Thousands of Google searches later, Sweeney discovered that Googling traditionally black names is more likely to produce an ad suggestive of a criminal background. Why? In this episode of Freakonomics Radio, Stephen Dubner investigates the latest research on names. Steve Levitt talks about his groundbreaking research on names, economic status, and race. And University of Chicago economist Eric Oliver explains why a baby named “Cody” is more likely to belong to conservative parents, and why another named “Esme” was probably born to a pair of liberals.

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  1. Milton Recht says:

    Having looked at Sweeney’s paper, there is not enough information in the paper to determine if the results of the paper are biased by her own previous searches on Google. Google maintains a search history, which is different than a browser search history and Google has a procedure for turning off its use. https://support.google.com/accounts/answer/54048?hl=en

    In other words, her results are self-fullfilling. She was looking for bias and found bias because Google tailored her ads and results to her previous searches.

    From Google, “Google Web History saves information about your activity, including pages you visit and searches on Google, as well as information about your search results (including personal results.). Over time, the service may use additional information about your activity on Google or other information you provide us in order to deliver a better experience.”

    “Basics: Search history personalization
    By personalizing your results based on your search history, we hope to deliver you the most useful, relevant content for your search. Search history personalization is just one of the ways that we show you more personalized search results”

    Sweeney had a protocol of clearing caches, removing cookies, etc. before each search, but there is no mention of turning off Google search history, which is stored at Google. Turning off Google history does not remove its contents. It just stops the addition of new information. Turning off history does not stop personalization using previous history.
    Google has a procedure for turning off personalization.

    ” click Disable customizations based on search activity. (Because this preference is stored in a cookie, it’ll affect anyone else who uses the same browser and computer as you).”

    Furthermore, the setting is stored locally and clearing caches and removing cookies could result in restarting the existing Google history, Google personalization and its use in going forward searches.

    Google states, “If you’ve disabled signed-out search history personalization, you’ll need to disable it again after clearing your browser cookies. Clearing your Google cookie clears your search settings, thereby turning history-based customizations back on.”
    Sweeney began by clearing cookies, etc., which restarts Google search personalization.
    Several browsers have an incognito setting, which hides the identity of the user and if Sweeney did not use the incognito setting in her searches, then her results might be different if she had.

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  2. JS says:

    I can’t remember if this was mentioned in any Freakonomics content, but I wonder if there might be a trend with teachers choosing unique names for their children. My wife teaches elementary school and does not want our children to have the same name as any of her previous students, regardless of whether the students were “good” or “bad” ones.

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  3. ella says:

    What is the music played at 49:10?

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  4. kassidy says:

    it is sad that people are judged by their name

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