What’s In A Name?

An EcoChi Vital Abstract

This article was posted on August 19, 2019 by Penny Pexman and David Sidhu, Quartz.

There has always been an interest in how the name of a thing affects our interpretation of it. Does it matter what something or someone is called? Across three recent experiments conducted with our colleagues from the University of Calgary—Joshua Bourdage and Kristen Deschamps—we found that people with softer-sounding names like “Anne” or “Owen” were expected to be more agreeable, emotional, and hardworking; while people with harder-sounding names like “Kate” or “Kirk” were expected to be more outgoing. Over the past century or so, research on sound symbolism has demonstrated that people will associate certain language sounds with particular properties. For example, the two words: “maluma” and “takete” were first used in 1929 by linguist researchers. 90% of the people studied worldwide paired “maluma” with a visual of a round shape, and “takete” with a jagged shape. In our research, we asked the question: Will the sounds in a person’s name also lead to certain expectations about the person’s personality? People with abrupt-sounding names are seen as extroverted: We compared names containing what are called sonorant consonants (e.g. /m/ or /l/) to those containing “voiceless stop consonants” (e.g. /k/ or /t/). Sonorants are characterized by a more smooth and continuous sound, while voiceless stops are more abrupt.  We looked at the six personality factors from the HEXACO model of personality: Honesty-Humility, Emotionality, Extroversion, Agreeableness, Conscientiousness (how hardworking and organized a person is) and Openness (to experience). In our first two experiments, participants were asked how much they expected people with either sonorants or voiceless stops in their names to have these different personalities. In general, we found that participants expected people with names like “Anne” or “Owen” to be high in Agreeableness, Emotionality, and Conscientiousness and people with names like “Kate” or “Kirk” to be high in Extroversion. This sounds outlandish, but there is recent work showing that individuals might change their appearance over time to look like their names. Might it also work for their personalities? To find out, we tested over a thousand people, collecting information about their personalities and their names. We found that the answer was a resounding “no.” None of the associations that we observed in our experiments existed in the real world. There was no evidence that “Annes” are actually kinder than “Kates,” or that “Kurts” are more outgoing than “Owens.” But our other experiments show that people might think they are (if all they know about someone is their name). This again suggests that the effect comes from the sounds of the names and is not inferred from the personalities of real people.

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