“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”—Shakespeare, Romeo & Juliet
Like the very millennial recreational use of astrology (hello “Astro Poets” and “Rude Astrology”), the joys of name psychology are infinite. They’re also based more on opinion than fact; if you’ve ever looked up your own name on Urban Dictionary, you know what we’re talking about. But it turns out that, according to actual scientific research, the sounds of our names tell people everything they need to know about our personalities — for better or for worse. So, what does your name tell your friends about you?
Apparently, we associate the sounds in certain names with certain personality traits. In a paper published recently in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, University of Calgary researchers examined the science behind “sound symbolism” and how it might apply to names. Sound symbolism describes the phenomenon where certain phonemes (the units of sound that make up speech) are associated with certain types of shapes, brightness, speed, hue, and taste.
Here, for the first time, researcher David M. Sidhu and his colleagues, Kristen Deschamps, Joshua S. Bourdage, and Penny M. Pexman, wanted to find out if the human brain associated certain phonemes in first names with personality. Since names are what we first learn about the people we meet, the researchers wanted to know if we make assumptions based on name sounds. What if the phonemes in first names actually lead us to form judgments about people?
Sound symbolism and name perception are important for one big thing: making impressions. Scientists have done a lot of research into how people form first impressions based on factors like ethnicity, facial features, and gender. But names are just as important. On job applications, blind dates, and email introductions, a name is all we have to go on. What happens if we assume someone is easygoing based on their name alone? Or, worse, what if we assume they’re aggressive, irritable, mean, or rigid?
Here’s how the researchers went about sorting names and sounds and personality assumptions. First, they presented people with a list of personality traits, each of which was paired with two names. Participants were instructed to think of these names as people they had never met and to indicate, based on the names, who they thought the adjective matched best. The participants were pretty clear. They thought the sonorant names (Lou, Milo, Ronin) belonged to more emotional, agreeable, and conscientious people. Voiceless stop names (Kirk, Tia, Zach) went with extroverted people. These results held even after the researchers corrected for name familiarity and gender bias.
In the second experiment, participants were presented with a single name and asked how well 36 different traits would match up with a person with that name. Even when considered in isolation, the results were the same — but some of the associations seemed to be even stronger. In particular, sonorant names appeared higher in agreeableness and openness, and voiceless stop names seemed higher in extroversion. Just to be sure, the researchers ran another experiment with fake names (names like “Mauren” and “Tatie”) to determine if it was really sound that people were associating with these traits and not some previous association with the name. The results still held up.
It’s important to mention that you can’t really predict your personality based on your name. Nor do people seem to try to make their personalities match their names. When Sidhu and his team analyzed how people reported their own personalities and whether those matched up with their name sounds, they found nothing significant. And according to them, that’s not surprising. Research has shown that people might subtly change their appearance to match stereotypes of their names, but someone’s personality can’t be changed that easily.
Let’s take a look at some examples to get to the bottom of the differences. We’ll need a little bit of linguistic terminology to get us through. The paper’s main findings show that “sonorant phonemes” like Mona, Joanna, or Owen seem to be associated with high emotionality, agreeableness, and conscientiousness. Sonorants, according to phonology, include vowels, liquids (like r and l), glides (like j and w), and nasal sounds (like m, n, and ng).
Just in case you’re curious about all of the sonorant names Sidhu and colleagues used in this experiment, they are: Abel, Allen, Anne, Joanna, June, Lanah, Laurel, Lauren, Lewis, Linus, Lois, Lorne, Lou, Luna, Lyle, Mara, Marla, Megan, Miles, Milo, Mona, Morris, Moses, Myah, Nathan, Noam, Noel, Noelle, Norah, Nya, Owen, Renee, Ronin, Rosanne, Warren, and Will. Whew. How many conscientious, agreeable, emotional people do you know with those names?
On the other hand, names with “voiceless stop phonemes” like Katie, Curtis, Jack, and Carter are associated with extroversion. In phonology, stops are consonant sounds that are formed when the airflow of talking completely, well, stops. Voiceless stops include p, k, and t sounds.
A full list of the extroverted names in the study? Here you go: Eric, Hector, Rita, Erica, Etta, Patty, Christie, Katie, Chris, Curtis, Kasey, Kirk, Ted, Petra, Titus, Kathy, Katia, Kate, Tucker, Tate, Trista, Terry, Pierce, Tracy, Carter, Kipp, Kurt, Pippa, Tessa, Tia, Jack, Greta, Victor, Yvette, Garrett, and Zach.
That makes sense. How often have you said something like, “She doesn’t seem like a Susan” or “He’s just too impulsive for an Owen?” According to the paper’s authors, future research should look into just how much first impressions on résumés and job applications depend on sound symbolism. More research is sure to come. For me, whenever someone has a first and last name that starts with the same letter, it makes me think that he or she is a super hero. Bruce Banner anyone?
Check out my related post: What’s in a name?