Albert Mehrabian, professor emeritus of psychology, is the go-to guy for baby names. He’s been contacted by more than a thousand parents asking for advice on what to name their children. That’s because he’s unlocked some of the secrets behind the psychology of how people react to names. He believes that a name not only determines what people call you, but how people think about and treat you.
As part of his extensive research, he’s asked many people what they thought about hundreds of different names, and his findings were compiled into a book, "The Baby Name Report Card: Beneficial and Harmful Baby Names" (Mehrabian, 2002). He’s also the author of "The Name Game: the Decision that Lasts a Lifetime (Penguin, 1990). In fact, Mehrabian developed a system to rate the attractiveness of names based on whether people imagined someone with that name to be warm, humorous, loyal, successful, athletic, polite or exhibiting other characteristics.
UCLA Today writer V. Claire Jadulang spoke with him recently about his research for this edited Q&A.
How did you rate the attractiveness of a name?
We categorized names on four dimensions: ethical-caring, popular-fun, successful, and masculine/feminine. Names can have a high score on one of those dimensions and moderate or low scores on others. For each of those categories we gave percentile scores from 1 to 100. I wanted to get an overall feeling of the attractiveness of a name, so I took the first three dimensions and combined those to come up with an overall score for the attractiveness of names.
How do we form our impressions of names?
For a lot of people, their idiosyncratic associations with names are based on their personal experiences with particular people. Other things that influence their impressions are historical figures and the historical usage of names. When you think of "Alexander," you think of Alexander the Great; "Elizabeth" and you think of Queen Elizabeth. These kinds of associations are important. General common associations to classical names, like Moses, can also have an impact.
Aside from that, I discovered through heavy statistical research that the harshness and softness of sounds, the visual image of a letter and choice of letter at the beginning and end of a name also have an effect. For example, softer sounds might be associated with femininity whereas short, crisp sounds are associated with masculinity.
These are not things that are taught in a school classroom. These associations are learned by virtue of being human. The intuitive judgments we make based on sounds are on that level.
What are the most popular names for girls and boys?
There is a difference between attractive names and popular names: Popular names are the ones that are overused. The popularity of different names is determined by trends.
As for names that do very well in my system, "Brandon" gets a 91 overall. "William" scores extremely high, and "Bill" is one of the few nicknames that does very well in my system. "Billy," on the other hand, gets a 55.
Names like "Esther," "Ethel" and "Elizabeth" score very high on ethical/caring. "Robert" (which is my brother’s name) gets a 99 in my research, while my name "Albert" gets a 54. Before my research, I would cringe when anyone would call me "Al." Needless to say, my research shows that "Al" gets an 8.
With name bias a reality, Mehrabian advises that the more uncommon a name, the less desirable an impression it leaves. So parents should choose carefully.
What about nicknames?
There are some very interesting differences and comparisons between given names and nicknames: "Ronald" gets an 87 percentile score on ethical-caring, while "Ron" gets a 25 and "Ronny" gets a 39. These are the kinds of differentiations that are really interesting for a younger person to think about before choosing a nickname. They need to think about what kind of image they are projecting when they think about variations of their names.
How do people’s names influence their lives?
You can ask the same question about whether a person’s appearance affects their life. In my study of names, I show what happens with common and uncommon names and popular and unpopular names. Looking at the psychological health of subjects using my temperament scales and comparing that with the impression given by their names, I found a correlation showing that individuals with less pleasant names exhibited greater psychopathology. It’s a very weak association, but if I were a parent choosing a name for my child, I wouldn’t take a chance at making that association.
Why do you think that’s the case?
People treat you differently depending on how attractive or unattractive your name is. Can you imagine someone who calls himself "Billy" becoming a CEO of a corporation? People make intuitive judgments based on names.
Is there such a thing as name bias?
In one study, the same essay supposedly written by a student was given to different teachers. In some cases, it would be labeled as written by a student with a common and attractive name, and in another case, an uncommon and unattractive name. The teachers gave higher scores to the essays written by the attractive name, even though it was the same essay.
In another study, subjects were given pictures of women with attractive and unattractive names whom they were asked to nominate as beauty queens. The bias was to nominate beauty queens as those with more attractive names. People picked what they thought was the better-looking person when they were really picking the more attractive name.
Considering the recent trend of celebrity parents giving their children names labeled unique or bizarre, does having a unique name help or hinder an individual?
Parents need to be very careful. A lot of times parents think they’re being clever, innovative or trying to express how intelligent they are, and they pick the most ridiculous names for their children.
The more uncommon a name becomes, the less desirable its impression. That general principle also pertains to when people misspell names. With deliberately misspelled names, the entire impression profile, meaning the first three dimensions, just collapses.
What is the longevity of a name?
The top 20 popular names are not going to be the top 20 for decades — maybe for a decade and then some others replace them. When I first published my books, people were just beginning to pick names with high morality connotations for their children (Jacob, Moses, Zachary, etc…). These kinds of names come and go.
Have you been contacted by parents or any other individuals who have read your book "The Baby Name Report Card"? What were some of their reactions to your findings?
I’ve had aspiring movie people who wanted help selecting name contact me. I’ve dealt with hundreds of parents who either selected or were about to select a name. The parents might have tried to select a name, but there was a disagreement between the mates, so they would come to me for advice. I have seen that some parents have a very keen, healthy sense for selecting names for their offspring. And then there are other parents who completely miss the ball.