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A name is never just a name. While a parent may think they are coming up with a unique, meaningful, or attractive name for a child, the truth is that the naming process is an exercise in reaching deep into the subconscious to pick a name that symbolizes thoughts, principles, values, or aspirations. Names don’t just reflect the thoughts and values of the person doing the naming. Each name also comes with a world of implications regarding how others perceive it. This article explores the psychological significance of a name’s cultural influence.
The Name Is the First Word We Internalize
Parents and family members understandably make a big deal about the first time a baby says “mom” or “dad.” However, the name with the biggest impact on a child’s developing psyche is their own. Just think of how many times an infant hears their own name during just the first six months of life! As their language expands, a child begins to associate their name with like-sounding words they encounter. This may be the cause of a phenomenon called nominative determinism that causes people to gravitate toward careers and interests that sound like their own names. While there are countless documented and anecdotal instances of nominative determinism, a study published in 2015 used actual census data with controls for gender, education, and ethnicity to confirm that men disproportionately worked in occupations with titles matching their last names. Examples included Baker and Carpenter.
How Names Help Us Find a Place in the World
Names with deep cultural and religious meaning are often carefully chosen by parents in order to convey the values and history of a family. These names can honor the past while also being aspirational toward the future. For example, a family may choose a name for a child that conveys a sense of honor, wisdom, or godliness. Names can also help us to either “fit in” or “stand out” in society. For some parents, the goal is to choose a name that is common because they want the child to shine based on what they accomplish. For other parents, the goal is to choose a unique, one-of-a-kind name that instantly sets a child apart.
From a cultural standpoint, a name can cause a person to feel like part of a community. For example, being named as a “Jr.” in a long line of older relatives with the same name can help a person to feel connected to their past. However, the weight of the expectations that come along with the name can also become suffocating as a person grows into adolescence. As a young adult tries to find their own way in the world, they may rebel by rejecting the “legacy” of the name given to them. If that name is culturally significant, the young adult may also feel that they need to reject or shed the cultural identity associated with the name.
A Person’s Name Influences Exterior Perceptions
People are judged by their names. In fact, the habit of judging names is so deeply entrenched in the brain that even common and well-known names are assessed heavily at the subconscious level. The mind even gives physical attributes to what should be completely neutral names. Yes, we can “feel” names with all the senses!
Cognitive psychologists and psycholinguists at the University College London and University of Calgary discovered that people see “Bob” and “Molly” as being round names. Meanwhile, names like “Kirk” and “Eric” are seen as spiky. This means that people are assigning either round and soft or prickly and sharp attributes to these names in the microsecond it takes to hear them!
While the idea that people assign physical attributes to names merely based on the sounds and curves the letters make when either being written on paper or spoken into the air is almost silly, these snap judgments can have dark consequences. This is especially true for people with ethnic or culturally inspired names. Have you ever heard the story of Kalisha White?
In 2021, a woman named Kalisha White applied for a job at Target. When she didn’t hear back, she decided to send another application with a different name. She also removed some of her qualifications from the second application. Surprisingly, White did hear back after submitting the second application. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) filed a class-action lawsuit against Target for essentially discriminating against applicants based on race. The case was eventually settled with a payout from Target in 2005.
According to the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), most hiring managers spend less than 10 second reviewing names during resume screenings. This may be one of the reasons why they unconsciously rely on “mental shortcuts” that are subject to stereotyping and racial profiling when sorting candidates. When studying habits of hiring managers as part of a study, researchers found that being asked to select a worker within just a few seconds led hiring mangers to be 25% more likely to discriminate against candidates with names they perceived as being black-sounding.
Interesting Data on Names With Religious Significance
Giving children names with religious significance is a rich tradition! That’s why it is so surprising to learn that perceiving a name as more religious increases discrimination in some cases. Researchers studying the effects of having a religiously significant name also found that even names from the same ethnic group can give off different perceptions based on the religious and class-related impressions they convey.
Final Thoughts on the Psychological Significance of Names
It’s impossible to separate a name from the psychological significance it has on a person! However, the reason why so few people stop to think about the ways that names can shape a person’s life based on both interior and exterior perceptions is that most of the “judgment” happens on the subconscious level. We feel what we feel about names before the letters have barely made it to our ears! The bottom line is that a culturally influenced name immediately draws the listener’s perceptions to whatever country or region the name evokes.