The Impact of Your Name


Sept. 20, 2006 — -- Giving your kid a unique name is the hot new thing in Hollywood. Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin named their firstborn Apple. Jason Lee gave his son the name Pilot Inspektor--that's not a misspelling, it's spelled with a "k." Earlier this month, Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes posed for Vanity Fair with their uniquely named daughter, Suri.

Unusual names -- like Shabita and Shakira -- are also big in the black community.

"Thirty percent of black baby girls in a given year in California have a name that no one else has," said Roland Fryer, an economist and assistant professor at Harvard University, who has taken a special interest in uniquely black names.

"White names tend to be things like Molly," Fryer said. "We had 16 million names in California. We only had six black Mollys and not one white Lakisha. Some of the blacker names tend to be things like Aida. Reginald is a very black name."

This matters because studies of resumes have found that people with black-sounding names are less likely to get callbacks.

In 2004, "20/20" brought together a group of young black professionals who doubted that the black-sounding names on their resumes made a difference. We put 22 pairs of names to the test, posting identical resumes, with the only difference being the name.

Since the content of the resumes was identical, it would make sense that they'd get the same attention. However, the resumes with the white-sounding names were actually downloaded 17 percent more often by job recruiters than the resumes with black-sounding names.

"You really never know why you don't get called back for that interview. I thought it's because of my job skills. But I never thought it was because of my name," said Tremelle, a participant in the study.

Jack Daniel, a professor of communication at the University of Pittburgh, has done research that shows both white and black children prefer white-sounding names.

Daniel asked a group of 4- and 5-year-old children a series of questions. The children were asked to answer the questions based solely on names. For example, "Who is the smartest, Sarah or Shaniqua?"

"Sarah," one boy answered.

Daniel asked, "Who would you like to play with, Tanisha or Megan?"

"Megan," another child said.

Daniel asked, "Who took the bite out of your sandwich? Do you think it was Adam or Jamal?"

Another boy said, "Jamal."

Why do we discriminate based on names? It may not be about race but instead what some names signal about a person's background.

"A distinctively black name tells us that a person typically comes from a neighborhood that has higher poverty, lower income, more likely to have teen mothers, et cetera," Fryer said.

There's new research that shows names may even tell us about more than just social background; a name may affect future decisions about marriage and career.

Psychologist Brett Pelham, who has studied hundreds of thousands of names, said they can significantly affect your life, even what profession you enter. He says it's probably not just chance that a man named Nathan "Leeper" became a high jumper.

"It's probably not a coincidence that of all the opportunities he [Leeper] had as a great athlete, that's the one that he stuck with," Pelham said.

His research shows that an unusual number of people named Dennis become dentists, and if you're named George you're more likely to become a geologist.

So do names even influence whom people pick to marry?

Pelham said, according to his research, yes. "My work has shown very clearly that people are disproportionately likely to marry other people, to want to befriend other people if their names resemble the name of the person making the decision."

He said it's no coincidence that Tom Cruise dated Penelope Cruz, or that Paris Hilton was once engaged to Paris Latsis.

On one level, it might seem wrong to make decisions based on names. "At another level, people like their names. And the biggest symbol of who you are, in fact, is your name, and if you feel good about yourself and your name, you will feel good about anything that even vaguely resembles your name," Pelham added.

It's why he said people named Georgia are disproportionately more likely than other women to move to the state of Georgia

"It seems dumb. It seems like a crazy reason. But at another level, why not choose Georgia over Virginia? Because she is constantly surrounded by reminders of something that she loves, namely herself," Pelham said.

Pelham says names can have a negative impact, as well.

"My cousin Dinky -- not going to become the CEO of a major corporation," he said.

So should parents steer away from being clever when naming their children?

"Advice to parents: It might seem cool to give your kid a unique name. But there are many, many more disadvantages to doing that than advantages," Pelham said.

That's why Pelham named his son Lincoln, which has positive associations with Abraham Lincoln.

Pelham said, "[People] associate that name with compassion and care, which is exactly what I wanted."