Editorial - How much do names sway our judgement?

7th February 2014 at 00:00

I've always had a bit of an identity crisis: my parents registered me with one set of names, reversed the order at the christening and I have been known by many variations since. Who am I? Depends who you're asking.

Of course, on the "Larkin scale" that hardly registers. Take Satchel Farrow, now Ronan and either Woody Allen's son or Frank Sinatra's - no one seems quite sure, least of all him. Or Heavenly Hiraani Tiger Lily Hutchence Geldof, who is being brought up by the man her mother left in order to take up with her father. Or even Zowie Bowie, who sensibly later became Duncan Jones, but at least he had a song written about his birth to make up for the indignity of that crazy moniker. It's really not hard to see why some countries have an approved list of names for parents to follow.

For most parents, naming a child is done with much thought and is very personal (unless you're Kevin Jonas and you're happy to have your new daughter's name announced via a tweet from a detergent company: perhaps she'll grow up to be a soap star). But even with the best of intentions there are many twists and turns on life's bumpy road from pushchair to bathchair, and today's cute Honey Boo will one day have to write her name on job application and mortgage forms. One suggestion to see if a name will stand the test of time is to put an adult title in front of it, or even the word "president". And how will it date? Will people think Lola is just pretty or will they always remember it as the name of a transvestite in a song by the Kinks?

Everyone approaches names with preconceptions and prejudices but for teachers it's a minefield. Each year, when confronted with the latest round of Savannahs, Braydens and Jayces trooping into the classroom, it's easy to fall into the trap of making assumptions about them - and indeed their parents.

But it's important to stop and check yourself before doing so, says David Figlio, professor of economics at Northwestern University in the US, who has done much research into children's names and their outcomes.

He has found that a child with a high-status traditional name will outperform her more unusually named sibling at school. Is this because teachers are prejudging these children and expecting them to fail? "Over time," he says in our cover feature, "if teachers expect less of a child, it sometimes comes true." He would like to see teaching courses give all trainees the same essay to mark but with a different name at the top. Then we would see if Emily received the same mark as Emili. We're all making assumptions but "if you understand you're stereotyping, you're less likely to engage in stereotyping behaviour".

But how much can a child's name really determine their destiny? One parent who tested this theory to the limit was a New Yorker called Robert Lane. His tale is told by Steven D Levitt and Stephen J Dubner in their book Freakonomics. Lane called one of his sons Winner and another Loser. The first grew up to be a lifetime criminal and the second a decorated NYPD detective. Yes, you guessed it: Winner became a loser and Loser became a winner.

Now that really is an identity crisis.



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