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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.


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.



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".


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.

Will Gourley

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.

gevin shaw

People read ads?

Ven Vardin

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?


Katrina Alvarez

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.



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.

gretl collins

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.


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.



Thanks for using my music in your episode!

Rachel M

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".


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!

Empathy is a good thing

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.


Paul Otterson

This sounds interesting

Keylan Taylor

i hope this help

Teto Kasane

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


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.




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