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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.

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

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

DUBNER: Okay, hi E.

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

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 JEREMIJENKO-CONLEY: 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 JEREMIJENKO-CONLEY: Yes, I love my name.

DUBNER: I don’t blame you.

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

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

Y. 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?

Y. JEREMIJENKO-CONLEY: 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.

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.

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.

*      *      *

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.

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.

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.

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?

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.

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.

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.

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, ‘T
hat’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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.


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, 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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?

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?

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.


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.


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.  

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.

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.

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.

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