How Much Does Your Name Matter? (Ep. 122)

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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.


Jeff Freeze

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?

michael

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.

Caleb B

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.

Katie Falkenberg

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...

Debbie Gail

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

Brittany

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

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

Enter your name...

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.

chickenfog

"Eyelash".

Soooo sweet.

Rob

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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mhenner

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?

Sherie

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...

jess

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

J. B.

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

Lassie

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.)

Luka

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

Michael Rochelle

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.

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Mark Collier

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.