Less Wrong is a community blog devoted to refining the art of human rationality. Please visit our About page for more information.

What's In A Name?

41 Post author: Yvain 29 June 2009 12:54PM

   Marge: You changed your name without consulting me?
   Homer: That's the way Max Power is, Marge.  Decisive.
The Simpsons

In honor of Will Powers and his theories about self-control, today I would like to talk about my favorite bias ever, the name letter effect. The name letter effect doesn't cause global existential risk or stock market crashes, and it's pretty far down on the list of things to compensate for. But it's a good example of just how insidious biases can be and of the egoism that permeates every level of the mind.

The name letter effect is your subconscious preference for things that sound like your own name. This might be expected to mostly apply to small choices like product brand names, but it's been observed in choices of spouse, city of residence, and even career. Some evidence comes from Pelham et al's Why Susie Sells Seashells By The Seashore:

The paper's first few studies investigate the relationship between a person's name and where they live. People named Phil were found more frequently than usual in Philadelphia, people named Jack in Jacksonville, people named George in Georgia, and so on with p < .001. To eliminate the possibility of the familiarity effect causing parents to subconsciously name their children after their place of residence, further studies were done with surnames and with people who moved later in life, both with the same results. The results held across US and Canadian city names as well as US state names, and were significant both for first name and surname.

In case that wasn't implausible enough, the researchers also looked at association between birth date and city of residence: that is, were people born on 2/02 more likely to live in the town of Two Harbors, and 3/03 babies more likely to live in Three Forks? With p = .003, yes, they are.

The researchers then moved on to career choices. They combed the records of the American Dental Association and the American Bar association looking for people named either Dennis, Denice, Dena, Denver, et cetera, or Lawrence, Larry, Laura, Lauren, et cetera. That is: were there more dentists named Dennis and lawyers named Lawrence than vice versa? Of the various statistical analyses they performed, most said yes, some at < .001 level. Other studies determined that there was a suspicious surplus of geologists named Geoffrey, and that hardware store owners were more likely to have names starting with 'H' compared to roofing store owners, who were more likely to have names starting with 'R'.

Some other miscellaneous findings: people are more likely to donate to Presidential candidates whose names begin with the same letter as their own, people are more likely to marry spouses whose names begin with the same letter as their own, that women are more likely to show name preference effects than men (but why?), and that batters with names beginning in 'K' are more likely than others to strike out (strikeouts being symbolized by a 'K' on the records).

If you have any doubts about the validity of the research, I urge you to read the linked paper. It's a great example of researchers who go above and beyond the call of duty to eliminate as many confounders as possible.

The name letter effect is a great addition to any list of psychological curiosities, but it does have some more solid applications. I often use it as my first example when I'm introducing the idea of subconscious biases to people, because it's clear, surprising, and has major real-world effects. It also tends to shut up people who don't believe there are subconscious influences on decision-making, and who are always willing to find some excuse for why a supposed "bias" could actually be an example of legitimate decision-making.

And it introduces the concept of implicit egoism, the tendency to prefer something just because it's associated with you. It's one possible explanation for the endowment effect, and if it applies to my beliefs as strongly as to my personal details or my property, it's yet another mechanism by which opinions become calcified.

This is also an interesting window onto the complex and important world of self-esteem. Jones, Pelham et al suggest that the name preference effect is either involved in or a byproduct of some sort of self-esteem regulatory system. They find that name preferences are most common among high self-esteem people who have just experienced threats to their self-esteem, almost as if it is a reactive way of saying "No, you really are that great." I think an examination of how different biases interact with self-esteem would be a profitable direction for future research.

Comments (132)

Comment author: 110phil 29 June 2009 09:36:09PM 13 points [-]

The "Players whose names start with K tend to strikeout more" study, is, I believe, flawed. It's true that K names struck out more historically, but that's because K names (Kyle, Kevin, etc.) are much more common now, when strikeout rates are high, than they were in previous generations, when strikeout rates were low.



Comment author: JamesAndrix 29 June 2009 05:44:15PM 7 points [-]

That's it, I'm naming my first child Utility.

A more useful application of this might be to assign people temporary names during hypothetical role playing to influence how they behave or what lessons they take away. I see this as a subtler version of what happened in the Stanford prison experiment. It would certainly reinforce the process: making someone a guard is one thing, what if they were given the a badge labeled "Lt. Punisher"?

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 30 June 2009 12:41:07AM 3 points [-]

I'm naming my first child Utility.

Okay... just going by the sound of the syllables, it doesn't sound that bad... but I really don't know what that would do to the kid's life, y'know what I'm saying?

I once met a kid named Vanyel. I asked him if he was named after Vanyel Ashkevron. He said "Yes". "Cool," I said, and I meant it, but I was also thinking "What the hell were his parents thinking, naming him after the most famous gay character in all of fantasy?" It's not that it's a bad name for an adult to take for themselves, but it's not really the sort of decision you should make for a child.

Comment author: brian_jaress 30 June 2009 08:30:37AM *  4 points [-]

Well, going by the study, I guess Utility will end up working for a power company and maybe living in Utah. Vanyel will end up in some job where he drives a van in Vermont.

Or rather, they'll have a slightly increased chance of doing so.

Realistically, people will think Vanyel is a foreign name. Same for Utility, until they see it written out.

EDIT: missing word

Comment author: Alicorn 30 June 2009 12:45:41AM *  7 points [-]

My first instinct was to agree with you. My second instinct was to think, "Does that mean I should not name my child after a straight character in fantasy, either?"

And if I should not, that rules out... just about every name that comes from the Bible, doesn't it? ;)

Comment author: Emile 30 June 2009 08:31:45AM 0 points [-]

It probably wouldn't rule out David.

Comment author: Alicorn 30 June 2009 03:53:58PM *  1 point [-]

The only Biblical name I had in mind was Ruth. Which, really, would be after a great aunt of mine, but the name comes from a Biblical character perhaps best known for following her mother-in-law around after being widowed. I think "maybe you'll be gay" is probably a less damaging message than "maybe you'll be straight, you'll get married, your husband will die, and then you'll live with your mother-in-law in a foreign country".

I do plan to name a first daughter after a fictional character (not a biblical one; Ruth is the prospective middle name of a second daughter) and I picked one with a mellifluous name, who displays various positive character traits throughout the four-book series in which she appears. However, the fact remains that I'm planning to name a kid after a fantasy princess who gets married in her teens to a king she's known for a very short time and lives happily ever after save some troubles with evil wizards and who then goes on to raise her son alone for sixteen years on account of some trouble with the evil wizards. Is this inauspicious? Does it matter?

Comment author: Cyan 30 June 2009 01:12:15AM 4 points [-]

There's a kid who will never worry about coming out to his parents, should it be necessary.

Comment author: Z_M_Davis 30 June 2009 05:36:04AM 1 point [-]

Seconding Alicorn. I haven't read the books, but one would imagine that there's more to this character than simply his being gay.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 30 June 2009 06:14:28AM 4 points [-]

Sure. But it's a central plot point of his stories, nonetheless.

I think that if I would object to someone naming their daughter Utility, then it's fair enough to worry about someone naming their son Vanyel. Or Singularity Smith or Humanist Hugh. Names shouldn't mark children for their parents' politics. Change your own name if you want to make a statement like that.

And if they just really liked Vanyel the character... I'm sorry, but you've got to be realistic about what shows up on Google.

Comment author: Z_M_Davis 30 June 2009 04:16:18PM 4 points [-]

then it's fair enough to worry about someone naming their son Vanyel. Or Singularity Smith or Humanist Hugh.

Invalid analogy. The name under discussion is Vanyel, not Downwithheteronormativity or Queer Quentin.

Comment author: thomblake 30 June 2009 04:27:07PM 2 points [-]

I'm sorry, but you've got to be realistic about what shows up on Google.

So one should not name one's child Elton, then, as a gay character shows up prominently in the search results?

Names shouldn't mark children for their parents' politics.

Is being okay with homosexuality a matter of politics?

Comment author: Alicorn 30 June 2009 04:29:33PM *  2 points [-]

Is being okay with homosexuality a matter of politics?

Sadly, it is now. Maybe in a hundred years, Eliezer will approve of Vanyel's name for children born at that time? Maybe if he'd lived a hundred years ago he'd have criticized people for naming children after characters of other races, or after characters who associated as equals with other races?

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 30 June 2009 07:09:58PM 6 points [-]

I'll say it again: It's not the job of parents to make that choice for children. If you want to grow up and then change your name, great! (We could use with a tradition of that anyway, so that people have a chance to outrun all the Internet posts they made before they were 21 years old.) But the job of parents choosing a name for their child is first and foremost to be concerned strictly about their children, as they will be as children and then as adults. Candy is a great name for a 4-year-old daughter, not so great for a future Board member of a Fortune 500 company. I'm glad my own parents didn't actually name me Luke Skywalker Yudkowsky, for example, or Hen3ry or any of the other cute names they considered. Or even Hari Seldon Yudkowsky - it probably wouldn't be a help to me in my life.

Children and their names shouldn't be pawns in that sort of game - even with the best possible motives and fighting the best possible battles.

Comment author: CronoDAS 01 July 2009 08:25:16PM 3 points [-]

"Luke S. Yudkowsky" doesn't seem particularly bizarre. Isn't it kind of traditional for people to be embarrassed about their middle name anyway? The others do have problems, though.

Comment author: Alicorn 30 June 2009 07:32:01PM 6 points [-]

It's not the job of parents to make that choice for children.

What choice? You don't seem to be advocating calling children "eldest son" or "second daughter" until they reach the age of majority and accept a name that reflects their adult personalities, so I don't think you mean that parents should not name their children. And every name carries with it a history and a connotation and a sound - even made-up collections of pretty syllables carry the "my parents made up my name, isn't that wacky" connotation. Which ones pass your threshold of not having the wrong connotation or history or sound? It can't be avoided entirely; should we, in your opinion, restrict ourselves to names that are X years old or have X existing popularity or that X% of randomly quizzed people think is a pretty normal name?

Comment author: thomblake 30 June 2009 07:57:15PM 2 points [-]

Indeed - I'm puzzled about what choice Eliezer meant. Eliezer seems to be advocating not naming your child anything that might be in any way weird, which causes me extreme cognitive dissonance when I consider that he thinks 'Eliezer' is okay.

Comment author: HughRistik 01 July 2009 01:06:30AM *  6 points [-]

Eliezer seems to be advocating not naming your child anything that might be in any way weird

I'm not sure avoiding mere weirdness is the point, the point is to avoid any name with associations or permutations that would make one's child easier to tease during childhood, or be taken less seriously during adulthood (e.g. "Candy"), or experience a higher risk of any other negative outcome.

As someone who has experienced childhood bullying, I'm glad that my name didn't give the bullies any additional ammo. If the bully is trying hard enough, they can make fun of just about any name, but some names are easier to make fun of than others.

The child having a positive outcome in the world (meaning the real world of the present, not the world that should be) is more important than parents' exercising their creativity, self-expression, or statement-making, political or otherwise. A child is not a vanity plate.

Comment author: CronoDAS 30 June 2009 09:16:17AM 0 points [-]

If I ever have a daughter, I want to name her Flonne.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 30 June 2009 07:05:39PM 1 point [-]

Has it occurred to you that a daughter only spends a certain number of years being cute, and then wants to grow up and possibly be President?

Comment author: Cyan 30 June 2009 07:32:57PM *  3 points [-]

I'm pretty sure the grandparent is not serious, given CronoDAS's stated plan of living in his parents' house until they die and then comitting suicide.

Comment author: CronoDAS 01 July 2009 08:24:09PM *  2 points [-]

Well, I'm half-joking, half-serious. I don't expect to have a daughter any time soon, so it's mostly just a little bit of fantasizing. I can't picture the name as being a barrier to anything, but I'll take your word for it. I really do adore the character, though. It's not because Flonne looks cute, it's because Flonne is kind, caring, and cheerful, the kind of person you'd want with you when things aren't going so well.

I wouldn't try to name a son Laharl, though.

I'm pretty sure the grandparent is not serious, given CronoDAS's stated plan of living in his parents' house until they die and then comitting suicide.

I don't put a very high probability on my actually carrying out that plan; I give at least a 9 out of 10 chance that something is going to send my life in a different direction before my parents both kick the bucket. I do, however, plan on staying in this house for as long as I can. I like this house!

Comment author: humanerror 04 July 2009 02:20:13AM 0 points [-]

I was once in the same social circle as a guy named Legolas, although I never actually met him myself.

Apparently that was his actual name. His parents were evidently big Lord of the Rings fans.

Comment author: Alicorn 04 July 2009 03:25:45AM 0 points [-]

I knew a girl named Kira after the officer of the same name on Deep Space Nine.

Comment author: CronoDAS 04 July 2009 04:18:43AM *  0 points [-]

I ran into a girl named Kira at an anime convention a few weeks ago. In that context, the name brings something very different to mind.

Comment author: Alan 30 June 2009 03:42:23AM 1 point [-]

With a name like "Utility," while sonorous enough, might this be an invitation to some notion of a need for maximizsation? Is it advisable to freight a child with such expectations? If so, then an alternate that might serve is Bentham(e). At least it could be shortened to Ben. On a lighthearted note, might Utility find himself or herself drawn toward becoming a public utilities worker? (In Latin culture, I'm acquainted with a few people named Jesus and Angel. Suffice to say, none in that sample set appears particularly pious or angelic in disposition or outward behavior. Your mileage may vary.

Tangential to the observation about the Stanford experiement, a story appeared a few years ago about a New York family in which one boy was legally named "Loser;" the other, "Winner." Care to guess which of the two brothers went on to become a police officer? http://www.smh.com.au/articles/2002/07/31/1027926917671.html

Comment author: JamesAndrix 30 June 2009 03:23:47PM *  0 points [-]

Is it advisable to freight a child with such expectations?

That's actually a major concern I have in naming generally, I've known people named after abstract concepts that internalized them quite a bit. I would actually advise against any such name. It messes with your head.

Comment author: Alicorn 30 June 2009 04:01:05PM 1 point [-]

Darn, does that rule out "Joyce" too because that refers to the abstract concept of joy? Or is that okay if I want my child to be joyous? What can I name my kids without having them messed up?

Comment author: JamesAndrix 30 June 2009 05:49:49PM 1 point [-]

I think saying "I am Joyce" all the time wouldn't have nearly the impact that saying "I am Joy" would.

Comment author: thomblake 30 June 2009 04:14:34PM -1 points [-]

The trick is, don't think of it as being 'messed up'. There are a lot of different ways of being that are just fine.

One of my children will be named after Alexander the Great and Lex Luthor. I will be teaching her Aristotelian ethics, and I have a strong suspicion she will be told she's a god by her mother.

Comment author: JamesAndrix 30 June 2009 06:09:55PM 0 points [-]

Well, it may depend on where the person would otherwise be psychologically. I think there are ways of being that are messed up, and the wrong name can at least make that worse. It may be that only a small percentage of "Joy"s would be psychologically harmed.

If a name is the worst mistake a parent makes, then the kid will probably be fine anyway.

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 30 June 2009 03:39:32PM 0 points [-]

"Vladimir" sounds not unlike "One who controls the World" in Russian (Vladet' = to own, mir = World).

Comment author: thomblake 30 June 2009 03:54:18PM 0 points [-]

My mentor and his wife are fans of Emerson, and their children are named Victor and Will. Victor is named after Frankenstein, as well as the word 'victor'; Will is named for the word 'will'. No telling how they've turned out yet.

Comment author: HalFinney 29 June 2009 06:36:38PM *  6 points [-]

My name is Hal, and I have worked in computer software development for my whole career. :)

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 30 June 2009 12:39:36AM 5 points [-]

My name is Eliezer Yudkowsky... okay, that may not sound very promising, but I've been repeatedly told that my name "sounds just like a scientist's name".

Comment author: Yvain 30 June 2009 10:50:44AM 5 points [-]

I think that's more like the confounders they try to eliminate: Eliezer Yudkowsky is a very Eastern European / Jewish sounding name, and both Eastern Europeans and Jews are perceived as commonly being scientists.

The -sky ending also calls to mind Lobachevsky, Minsky, Korzybski, Tsiolkovsky, Tarski, and other really smart people.

Comment author: komponisto 01 July 2009 10:19:43AM 0 points [-]

Interesting. I had always wanted to ask you whether you had run into people who inferred from your name that you were devoutly religious. (Not that it would have taken them very long to be disabused of this idea, of course!)

Comment author: Psy-Kosh 30 June 2009 08:08:19AM *  0 points [-]

Hrm... but given that your Jewish upbringing, I can reasonably assume you've heard a certain song/tune/chant multiple times in the past, so.....

"Eliezer Yudkowsky

Eliezer Yudkowsky

Eliezer Eliezer

a Machiiiine been developing"

(couldn't resist :))

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 30 June 2009 07:04:28PM 0 points [-]

Actually I don't get this one, sorry.

Comment author: Psy-Kosh 30 June 2009 08:05:48PM 1 point [-]

sing it to the tune of "eliyahu hanavi"

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 30 June 2009 09:24:38PM 6 points [-]

You know there are actual experiments centered around showing how much harder that sort of thing is for other people to get, than we think when we sing it in our heads.

Comment author: Psy-Kosh 30 June 2009 09:43:37PM 1 point [-]

*blinks* I'm not surprised that it would be harder to get than we would think, but I didn't realize anyone actually had done an actual study on specifically that.

For some reason, the fact that this was systematically studied makes me happy.

Anyways, got a link/reference/info on that? Thanks.

Comment author: ciphergoth 01 June 2011 04:41:06PM 3 points [-]

The Illusion of Transparency from the You Are Not So Smart blog. Better late than never :-)

Comment author: [deleted] 22 February 2014 09:03:00AM *  0 points [-]

Prob'ly it varies from person to person. It would be harder for me to read this without singing it in my head (and I hadn't read its grandparent when I read it).

Comment author: thomblake 30 June 2009 03:58:29PM 0 points [-]

As long as we're sharing, I think my name being Thomas was influential in nudging me towards philosophy. I'd like to think I have more than a little in common with the Dumb Ox. Not to mention the apostle.

Comment author: Jonnan 30 June 2009 09:40:10AM 5 points [-]

But you've missed the most important point!

It means that the comic book tendency to get super-powers coincidentally related to your real name actually works!

Now if only I can figure out a superpower related to the name Jonnan, I can figure out what kind of radioactive bug to be bit by?


Comment author: RichardKennaway 29 June 2009 02:46:28PM *  4 points [-]

That is all quite fascinating, in a "fancy that!" fashion, but whenever I see correlational data reported I wonder about the magnitude of the effect, and a measure of that magnitude in terms of bits of information. The first result they report is that if there were no influence between name and state of residence, the proportion of coincidences would be 0.1664, while the observed level is 0.1986. How large an influence does this represent?

I am not quite sure what the correct calculation to make is -- perhaps someone more versed in these matters can say -- but when I calculate the Kullback-Leibler divergence between two binary distributions, one with p=0.1664 and the other with p=0.1986, I get about 0.005 bits. When I estimate the mutual information between name and state, making various assumptions about the data I'd need for a precise calculation, I get a similar figure.

In short, if you want to predict someone's name from their state, or vice versa, the result is completely useless. Of course, making such a prediction was not the authors' purpose. But then, what was? What can you do with less than a hundredth of a bit?

How justifiable is it to report the finding in these words (quotes from the paper):

people are attracted to places that resemble their own names.


these findings challenge traditional assumptions about how people make major life decisions

I have just found where Andrew Gelman has blogged about this (search his blog for "Pelham"). I don't have time to read what he says at the moment, but his headlines indicate he doesn't rate it.

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 29 June 2009 02:59:36PM *  9 points [-]

Blog posts by Andrew Gelman:
Why it's not so weird that so many dentists are named Dennis: a story of conditional probability
How many people choose careers based on their names?

Is there a reason NOT to link to the posts directly and have the readers repeat the search?

Comment author: Psychohistorian 29 June 2009 02:53:13PM 9 points [-]

More specifically, such a small effect does not require a widespread bias; if just a tiny number of people have a stronger (even conscious) bias, it could explain the data.

Comment author: Yvain 30 June 2009 10:33:55AM *  6 points [-]

Ah. I figured he must have done it at some point since the only copy of the PDF file I could find was on Andrew's site with the name "stuff-for-blog", but Google searches for "Gelman Pelham" and "Gelman name letter" didn't turn anything up. If I'd known I would have just linked him. I hope he's not upset that I'm "copying" him.

I did not first read this study on Gelman's blog. Actually, there is a story behind where I first read it. It was in a college psychology class. I was quite nervous throughout class that day, because I was going to ask the professor after class to write me a letter of recommendation for a postgrad program in Scotland I wanted to get into. We spent an hour or so going over this paper and implicit egoism, and then after class I asked the professor to help me get into the program, and she started cracking up.

...see, my real name is Scott, and it was a program in Scotland, and we'd just finished studying the name letter effect...the next day she told the entire class about it, and I was suitably embarrassed, and the name letter effect has stuck in my memory ever since.

Comment author: Alicorn 29 June 2009 03:50:02PM 7 points [-]

A lot of relatively weighty decisions wind up being made for trivial reasons simply because all of the non-trivial factors cancel each other out - for instance, if I were trying to decide whether to go into ethics or metaphysics (a choice with long-term career impact, assuming I get to be a professor one day) and I didn't find myself strongly preferring one over the other, I could see myself picking one for a silly reason. If my name were Ethel, which it is not, and I liked the sound of "Ethel the ethicist", that might tip the balance. Either that, or contemplating that choice would throw into sharp relief something I'd been overlooking in favor of metaphysics. But if there is no such factor, then why not choose on the basis of "Ethel the ethicist" sounding nice? It arguably makes slightly more sense than flipping a coin.

Comment author: steven0461 29 June 2009 06:43:31PM 8 points [-]

It seems like utility calculations should cancel out to within such a small margin as U(good name) - U(bad name) only very very rarely, especially when there are many different independent considerations. I worry that people may have overactive indifference detectors, and could improve their decision algorithms by learning tricks to distinguish the real slight preferences/estimates underlying what feels to them like very precise indifference but isn't.

Comment author: JustinShovelain 29 June 2009 07:04:16PM 2 points [-]

I agree that it may plausibly be argued that the difference should rarely fall into the small margin: U(good name) - U(bad name) (up to varying priors, utility functions, ...). However, should people calculate to the point that they can resolve differences of that order of magnitude? A fast and dirty heuristic may be the way to go practically speaking; the difference in utility would be less than the utility lost in calculating it.

Comment author: Yvain 30 June 2009 10:25:02AM 2 points [-]

If you haven't already, read the part of the paper where they talk about hardware and roofing stores. They ran some clever analyses to see whether the effect was caused by a love of alliteration (for example someone named Herman decides to go into hardware so he can call his store Herman's Hardware) and the results suggested this wasn't the explanation.

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 29 June 2009 04:36:55PM *  0 points [-]

Right. Given the prior knowledge, silly reasons may be independent of the serious consequences, even if in the end, when you learn more, they become dependent. High-impact decisions can be indistinguishable from each other at the stage where they are made, so that silly reasons don't (anti)correlate with serious reasons. Silly reasons are not silly because they are anti-intelligent, they are silly because they are irrelevant.

Comment author: wuwei 30 June 2009 12:39:02AM 3 points [-]

Here's one way this could be explained: Susie realizes that her name could become a cheap and effective marketing tool if she sells seashells at the seashore. Since that's something she enjoys doing anyway, she does so.

If that's how things are, I wouldn't really call this a cognitive bias.

Comment author: JustinShovelain 29 June 2009 06:49:09PM 3 points [-]

Is this whole bias caused by the exposure effect? Would there be any obstacle in unifying the two? Do people also prefer to live in towns that are associated with their parents' names? Do people who fall for this effect also name their pets or children after themselves to a greater extent?

Comment author: Yvain 30 June 2009 10:37:40AM 1 point [-]

The second link in the article, the one with the words "they find", is a paper called "Name Letter Preferences Are Not Merely Mere Exposure". You should find some useful studies and stuff there.

If you want the paper but can't access it, tell me your email and I'll send it to you.

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 29 June 2009 02:26:50PM *  3 points [-]

If you have any doubts about the validity of the research, I urge you to read the linked paper. It's a great example of researchers who go above and beyond the call of duty to eliminate as many confounders as possible.

I'd be more confident if there was any research by someone other than Pelman on the subject. There is always a possibility for biased selection of data and deceptive interpretation of analysis.

Comment author: Alicorn 29 June 2009 06:18:41PM 2 points [-]

I'd be interested to know if people who live in towns or have jobs that sound like their names enjoy these residences/careers more than people who live in the same town/have the same career, but have different-sounding names.

Comment author: thomblake 29 June 2009 06:33:33PM 0 points [-]

You might still not get meaningful results. Having grown up in Shelton, CT (Huntington, specifically) I find I prefer things and people called "Shelton", "Huntington", or "Connecticut". I'm not sure if I would have more of a preference for a place that sounds like my name than for those places.

Though it's all fairly irrelevant since New Haven is the greatest city in the world.

Comment author: John-Henry 30 June 2009 11:09:08AM *  3 points [-]

I live in the state of Georgia and recently I had noticed that I pay special attention to news stories about the country of Georgia. This happens despite that the country has no special relevance besides sharing a name with my state. This post gives me some insight as to why that happens.

This doesn't seem dissimilar to some experiences I had in elementary school. Whenever the teacher would read a story to the class, and a character had the same name as someone in the class, when the teacher read the name of that character, everyone in the class would look at that person. If the character in the story was doing something funny, then everyone would laugh at that person. The class thought it was especially funny when the character contrasted sharply with the person in class. If there was a character that was an old man named Jason, then the class would laugh that their Jason was 5 years old. Later there would probably be jokes about Jason being an old man or a game where Jason was playing the part of an old man. I don't yet know how this ties in, but it's seems interesting when thinking about names and identity.

When thinking about the first initial similarities, one thing came to mind:

"I cdnuolt blveiee taht I cluod aulaclty uesdnatnrd waht I was rdanieg."

"The phaonmneal pweor of the hmuan mnid Aoccdrnig to rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn't mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoatnt tihng is taht the frist and lsatltteer be in the rghit pclae."

"The rset can be a taotl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit a porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe. Amzanig huh?"

This seems to suggest that the mind uses a symbol recognition hack. Not that different from being able to scan a list and find your own name faster than someone elses. Is it possible that this bias shows up more often in written word than in speech? Could it be that when looking at a list of possible careers, our eyes are drawn toward symbols which trigger recognition and so we are more likely to focus on those?!?

Comment author: Jack 02 July 2009 03:50:41AM *  5 points [-]

Ulounnaefrtty alphiinomcscg tihs rriueeqs taht uaentrects be dtuviiinme not too hnmuuoogs. Aslo crtiaen ltteer ciinntoombas msut go ugheanncd.


Unfortunately, accomplishing this requires that utterances be diminutive not too humongous. Also certain letter combinations must go unchanged.

Comment author: MrHen 21 July 2009 07:43:33PM 1 point [-]

It also helps to use words I actually know how to spell.

Comment author: tut 02 July 2009 11:53:32AM *  2 points [-]

"The rset can be a taotl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit a porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe. Amzanig huh?"

However, "a total mess" can only be certain patterns("randomly", but not eg in reverse order).

And you get a worse result on the Stroop test after reading such a text than after reading the same text with correct spelling. In other words, such texts generate akrasia.

Comment author: CronoDAS 02 July 2009 02:35:38AM 2 points [-]
Comment author: komponisto 18 July 2009 12:41:57PM 1 point [-]

Data point:

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the majority opinion in Kennedy v. Louisiana, a highly controversial 2008 case striking down the death penalty for child rape.

In this 5-4 decision favoring a petitioner named Patrick Kennedy, Justice Kennedy, widely considered a "swing vote" with conservative leanings, sided with the liberals on the court and against the conservatives -- clearly determining the outcome of the case.

I put this here because this post was the first thing I thought of when I ran across this piece of information. One should of course bear in mind the frequency effect.

Comment author: komponisto 18 July 2009 02:43:11PM *  0 points [-]

Um....okay....person who downvoted this: What was the message you were trying to send? Was it:

-Don't post anecdotes (possibly) illustrating the point of the post? (In which case, did you take care to downvote all the above comments doing the same thing?)

-Don't comment on an old post? (Is that a rule we really want to establish?)

-There's no way that Justice Kennedy's decision could have been influenced by name bias, and surely every sane person realizes this? (What makes you so sure? And did I say that it was? Isn't it all right merely to raise the possibility?)

For goodness' sake, I even put in a disclaimer about the frequency effect!

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 18 July 2009 03:00:13PM *  1 point [-]

Only a tiny percentage of people who make name-associated decisions make them because of name-association (see Gelman's analysis). Thus, finding an example of a decision in the presence of name-association is overwhelmingly unlikely to be an example of a decision influenced by name-association. Such anecdote, even when given without this conclusion, fallacy of which you might have realized yourself, can't be relevant to the pattern discussed in this post. It thus implicitly suggests this conclusion, as its sole raison d'etre, turning it into a misleading "not technically a lie".

Comment author: komponisto 18 July 2009 03:17:10PM *  1 point [-]

But how is my anecdote any less relevant than the others above, which were in fact deemed acceptable commentary on the post? Indeed, you seem to be arguing against the thrust of the post itself, rather than my individual comment.

Also, does mere failure of an example warrant downvoting? (Rhetorical question; it doesn't. For instance, it may prompt a discussion of the reasons the example fails, which may add value to the discussion. Or it may be neutral. Downvoting implies the added value is outright negative.)

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 18 July 2009 03:26:41PM *  1 point [-]

I'm not happy with many of the other anecdotes either. Example being misleading is a negative effect. Seeing patterns where there's none is a basic failure in human mind, we should know better than to indulge it.

Comment author: komponisto 18 July 2009 04:27:38PM *  0 points [-]

Example being misleading is a negative effect.

I could see a case for this if:

(1) The existence of the phenomenon under discussion was not itself in dispute;

(2) The failed example is likely to lead to confusion about the nature of the (undisputed) phenomenon;


(3) The commenter should have known this, or in some other way the example was not offered in good faith.

Looking through your previous comments, and noting your citation of Gelman, it appears that you are skeptical of the name-bias phenomenon itself as posited by Yvain and those he cites; hence (1) does not hold. Regarding (2), I find it highly unlikely that someone following the discussion about whether name-bias exists is going to be misled or confused by a particular anecdote that may or may not exemplify the phenomenon (depending in particular on whether the phenomenon exists). As for (3), the comment was quite consistent with the spirit of the preceding discussion. It should also be noted that (as I hinted) the name coincidence in the court decision would not have caught my attention if I hadn't read the post -- this fact alone arguably makes it worthy of a comment on said post.

It would be different if you accepted Yvain's claims (1), but thought my example would mislead folks about what it was that Yvain was describing (2). As it is, however, a court decision such as I mentioned clearly counts as a candidate for name-bias, if you assume that name-bias as described in the post actually exists. The issue is that you don't accept this premise in the first place. Consequently I don't see a defensible rationale for downvoting in this context. (Certainly not without also downvoting the main post.)

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 18 July 2009 04:56:45PM 1 point [-]

I accept that the effect might be real, but neither the main post, nor the paper itself are at odds with interpreting this effect as tiny. Being tiny, the effect can't be used in interpreting the structure of specific examples, it doesn't suggest that any given example has good chances of being a name-based decision.

Comment author: djcb 30 June 2009 12:48:02PM 1 point [-]

Intriguing... I can imagine that having a certain name may have an effect on people (as illustrated by the late Johnny Cash), but this is weird... Couldn't there be some alternative explanation?

E.g., maybe there's a regional preference for certain names, and they picked the regional preferred ones that happened to fit the desired pattern (Study 1)? Similarly for study 7, where names are correlated with with social stratum, year of birth, which also influence occupation.

For some of the studies they picked very specific examples - hardware v.s. roofing or only a couple of names; could there be some confirmation bias?

Anyway, only guessing here -- some of the results are harder to explain. But I think there could still be some more boring explanation related to the set up of the studies.

Comment author: pwno 29 June 2009 08:26:44PM 1 point [-]

Here's my take on why the name bias exists: the name bias is a byproduct of the consistency bias.

Like we all know, we are inclined to be consistent with our prior beliefs and actions. Another aspect our ourselves that we tend to want to be consistent with is our perceived identity. For instance, if you identify yourself as a manly man then you'll have a more natural affinity to things you perceive to be manly.

Obviously, your name plays a big role in the construction of your identity. Your tendency to prefer things that sound like your name is just your mind trying to keep you consistent with you identity. Because it doesn't make much evolutionary sense to prefer things that sound like your name, think of it as a glitch in the consistency bias.

Comment author: Alicorn 29 June 2009 09:08:48PM *  2 points [-]

This makes little sense to me. It would explain it if people only had a tendency to like people/places/things with the same (or almost the same) name as them (e.g. you might see a lot of people named Alex marrying each other and a lot of Britneys with best friends named Brittany - and in fact, my best friend in middle school shared my first name). But my first initial doesn't strike me as being more a part of my identity than, say, the number of letters long my name is - is there some correlation there too? Do people named John like to live in Ohio because it has four letters? And if you start looking that hard, doesn't this turn into Bible-code-esque seek-hard-enough-and-ye-shall-find stuff? I mean, I'm sure there are a hundred things significant to my life that have some trivial connection to my name or the name of my hometown or the name of my first guppy.

Comment author: pwno 29 June 2009 09:34:41PM 1 point [-]

I agree that my theory doesn't explain the first initial bias, but maybe that phenomenon has a completely different cause.

I think the first initial bias has more to do with the fact that we get an orienting response from hearing or reading our name, which causes us to pay extra attention to the message source (our liking of the source would result from our paying more attention to it). I hypothesize that we also get an orienting response from hearing or reading messages that are similar to our names.

Reading the word "Alicorn" might unconsciously grab your attention more than "Olicorn" even though they would sound the same (I think). Generalizing from this example, maybe reading words that simply start with a capital "A" grab your attention more than words starting with other capital letters. Hence, you pay more attention (and therefore like) people/places/things that start with a capital A.

Comment author: Alicorn 29 June 2009 10:09:58PM *  0 points [-]

I can't think of a way to pronounce "Olicorn" the way "Alicorn" is pronounced (the first syllable rhymes with "pal" and "shall", not "doll" or "call").

Comment author: thomblake 30 June 2009 04:21:44PM 0 points [-]

For reference, I had to read that sentence a lot of times to make sense of it, as I pronounce "doll" with the same vowel as "pal" and "shall", and I can't currently imagine a way that I would pronounce "doll" the same as "call". Also, I read "Olicorn" as being likely pronounced the same as "Alicorn" (the O as in Oliver, the A as in Alexander).

Comment author: eirenicon 01 July 2009 06:42:45PM *  0 points [-]

May I ask where you are from? I've never heard anyone pronounce "doll" the same as "pal", and if there's one thing I'm fascinated by, it's accents (speaking as someone who has been confounded by his own Canadian raising. About. Not aboot.).

Comment author: thomblake 01 July 2009 06:47:15PM 0 points [-]

Shelton, CT, USA. I believe my accent is typical of that region of the Naugatuck River Valley, usually referred to as the 'valley drawl'.

Comment author: Alicorn 30 June 2009 04:26:42PM 0 points [-]

I guess you and I have different accents. The A in "Alicorn" (and in "Alexander", too, both instances) is the same one I use in "pal", "shall", "cat", "fan", "rabbi", "lad", "granny", etc. The O in "Oliver" is the same vowel for me as "doll" and "call", which most of the time rhyme (although when I'm trying very carefully to speak distinctly, they start to sound a little different).

Comment author: thomblake 30 June 2009 04:30:08PM 0 points [-]

This conversation probably shouldn't continue without the use of audio and/or a standard phonetic representation. Suffice it to say that one or both of us talks (and hears) funny.

Comment author: pwno 29 June 2009 10:14:08PM 0 points [-]

Ah, thought it would be like "Ali" in "Muhammad Ali".

Comment author: Alicorn 29 June 2009 10:23:28PM 0 points [-]

Nope, it's a short I. Like "unicorn", with the "al" in front instead of the "u".

Comment author: thomblake 29 June 2009 05:28:24PM 1 point [-]

This is hinted at in other comments, but is it established in the literature that this is a small, unconscious bias? It seems like it could just as easily be the conscious preferences of a few people. In accordance with what Alicorn says below, I wouldn't be surprised if a positive integer of people moved to Philadelphia to become "Philladelphia Phil" or something similar.

Comment author: Alicorn 29 June 2009 05:29:55PM *  1 point [-]

There's no shortage of people who, consciously and unabashedly, like alliteration a lot more than seems appropriate to me.

Comment author: JamesAndrix 29 June 2009 05:46:53PM 8 points [-]

aww Alicorn, alliteration always awesomely alleviates awful ailments.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 30 June 2009 12:44:26AM 8 points [-]

And also annoys audiences.

Comment author: Cyan 30 June 2009 06:30:23PM *  -1 points [-]

You're using assonance, not alliteration.

Comment author: thomblake 30 June 2009 06:43:10PM 4 points [-]

Assonance is merely re-using the same vowel sound repetitively, not necessarily at the beginning of the word - the equivalent for consonants is "consonance". The above would commonly be called alliteration, sometimes defended by the unwritten glottal stop consonant used before vowel sounds at the beginning of English words.

Comment author: Cyan 30 June 2009 07:30:43PM 0 points [-]

Voted up since I learned something. (Glottal stops. Huh.)

Comment author: TraderJoe 25 April 2012 01:38:02PM *  0 points [-]

[comment deleted]

Comment author: Nanani 30 June 2009 12:30:49AM 0 points [-]

Just out of curiosity... Has there been any research on the opposite bias? Do people who dislike their names avoid places that sound similar to it?

Researching a sample of people who legally changed their names in adulthood might be the way to go here.

Comment author: Alicorn 30 June 2009 12:35:32AM 2 points [-]

I don't think you could get together enough people who changed their names away from any particular name to see overall trends. The set of people who changed their names in adulthood is probably decent-sized, but the set of people who changed their names away from, say, David, and not because they are transitioning to female or for some other reason besides not liking it, and who have had the opportunity to move as adults to a city that sounds like "David", is probably tiny.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 30 June 2009 12:38:18AM 0 points [-]

You could maybe do Bayesian updates on this if you had a large enough pool of name-changers and a large enough pool of names previously investigated, but it probably wouldn't end up being "statistically significant" by journal standards.

Comment author: RichardKennaway 30 June 2009 08:26:38AM 0 points [-]

Can you expand on what sort of "statistically insignificant" Bayesian update would be a useful thing to do?

Comment author: gworley 29 June 2009 05:16:13PM 0 points [-]

I feel kind of embarrassed now for having not known about this bias until now. It doesn't really surprise me, though: all my life I've noticed that I tend to like things that start with the letters "g" and "w": fictional characters, place names, etc.. I've never really thought consciously "I like things that sound like my name", but looking at my actual preferences I think it's pretty clear that I do.

Comment author: Kaj_Sotala 29 June 2009 05:34:05PM 1 point [-]


Now that you mention this... I've always liked "C" names, myself. C, of course, can be pronounced either as a "K" or as an "S".

I'd known about the name bias for a while, and even used it as an example several times, and still didn't realize my own bias until you said that.

Though then again... I also like "E" names, so it might just be coincidence. You'd expect there to be plenty of false positives in a group this large.

Comment author: David_J_Balan 30 June 2009 01:24:11AM 0 points [-]

The full quote is even better:

"That's the way Max Power is, Marge. Decisive. Uncompromising! And rude!"

Comment author: dumbshow 30 June 2009 04:25:57PM *  2 points [-]

It should probably be attributed to 'Max Power' too--not 'Homer'.

Comment author: thomblake 29 June 2009 01:49:04PM -1 points [-]

It also tends to shut up people who don't believe there are subconscious influences on decision-making, and who are always willing to find some excuse for why a supposed "bias" could actually be an example of legitimate decision-making.

Sorry, not this time. I have no problem with preferring things that are associated with me.

Comment author: JamesAndrix 29 June 2009 05:53:30PM 1 point [-]

How much?

If you're choosing between jobs in the otherwise identical towns of Springfield and Blakeston, How much more would the Springfeild job need to pay for you to take it? Or to evoke another bias: How much money are you willing to lose?

Comment author: thomblake 29 June 2009 06:08:06PM 1 point [-]

Tough to say, as I haven't really been in a relevantly similar position w.r.t. being offered similar jobs in different places, nor has money been a primary concern in picking a job.

However, I think I could see myself taking a pay cut (if I could live with it) for working at Blake Enterprises or Blake University or something like that. That would just be awesome. "Hi, this is Thom Blake from Blake Enterprises returning your call..."