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What's in a name?

Shakespeare’s Juliet may have answered that question best: “That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet.” Romeo and Juliet aside, have you ever wondered how your name could affect your life?

If you were named Usain Bolt, would you be destined to become a world-class sprinter?

Is it pure coincidence that Carla Dove works as a program manager for the Division of Birds at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History? Are people like Amy Freeze (WABC-TV in New York City) and Larry Sprinkle (WCNC in Charlotte, North Carolina) natural-born meteorologists?

Questions like these date back to ancient Rome, when the Romans coined the term nomenet omen (“prophetic names”). Today, the term “nominative determinism” describes the popular theory explaining why some people seem to have picked occupations that perfectly suit their names. But some researchers, such as David N. Figlio, director of the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, remain skeptical about the theory. “Studies I’ve seen don’t give me any evidence that it’s true,” Figlio says.

Still, numerous recent studies do prove people make snap judgments about us everyday, purely on the basis of our names. And these perceptions can impact our educations, careers and relationships. As President Barack Hussein Obama once joked, “I got my middle name from somebody who obviously didn’t think that I’d ever run for president.”

“Children whose names reflect a lower socioeconomic status are treated differently in schools. It seems to be a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy."
– David N. Figlio, director of the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University

Through the looking glass

Psychologists use the term the “looking-glass self” to describe how our identity is shaped by how other people treat us throughout our lives. Turns out, recent studies show that people may treat us differently if our names evoke gender, racial or socioeconomic stereotypes.

For example, Figlio studied 1,000 pairs of sisters in the U.S. Using a linguistic test to assign popular names a “femininity rating,” he discovered girls with feminine names such as Anna, Emma or Elizabeth are less likely to enroll in advanced math and physics classes than their sisters with more androgynous names such as—according to Figlio’s “femininity rating”—Abigail, Lauren or Ashley. In fact, parents could unwittingly send their daughters named Alex and Isabella (two names on opposite ends of the femininity scale) off on different career paths because a girl named Alex was twice as likely as her sister Isabella to take higher-level math or science courses. The reason? Girls with feminine names are often typecast, meaning that a girl named Isabella is less likely to study math or science because people don’t expect her to, Figlio concludes.

In another study published in 2005 by the National Bureau of Economic Research, Figlio found that children with a presumed linguistically lower-status name—often spelled in an unusual way or including punctuation—received on average 3 to 5 percent lower test scores than their siblings with more traditional names, and were less likely to be recommended for gifted programs. “Children whose names reflect a lower socioeconomic status are treated differently in schools,” Figlio says. “It seems to be a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

On a first name basis

There is also striking evidence that names trigger different outcomes during job searches. In a study titled “Are Emily and Greg More Employable than Lakisha and Jamal?,” researchers Marianne Bertrand and Sendhil Mullainathan sent nearly 5,000 resumes in response to job ads in Chicago and Boston newspapers. While the resumes were identical, half were given fake first names most commonly associated with African-Americans, such as Lakisha and Jamal. The other half were given fake first names that sounded like they belonged to white people, such as Emily and Greg. The study results concluded that the call-back rate from employers was 50 percent higher for the “white-sounding” names than for the “African-American-sounding” names. Even federal contractors with affirmative action policies and companies advertised as equal-opportunity employers showed bias in the study results.

A distinct advantage

In the past, uncommon first names were seen as a hindrance. But a recent study shows that there could be an unexpected benefit. Research by Richard L. Zweigenhaft, a psychology professor at Guilford College in Greensboro, North Carolina, reveals that wealthy people with unusual names are more likely to find themselves listed in a Who’s Who publication. “Some unusual names, thoughtfully chosen and given in contexts, which suggest that they are special and distinctive rather than weird or odd, can have positive effects,” Zweigenhaft concludes.

Having a distinctive name helps you stand out in a crowd, says Dalton Conley, a New York University professor and author of Parentology: Everything You Wanted to Know about the Science of Raising Children but Were Too Exhausted to Ask. As the father of a 17-year-old daughter named E and 15-year-old son named Yo, Conley says his teens enjoy notoriety at school, where they’re widely known by teachers, classmates and parents alike.

You name it

Once you know how your name can influence people’s perception of you, you can take charge of your personal brand. And if the name given to you by your parents doesn’t fit your brand, you can always change it, as did Peter Gene Hernandez (musician Bruno Mars), Demetria Guynes (actress Demi Moore) and Eleanor Gow (designer Elle MacPherson). But having a powerful personal brand (read our feature story, “Brand yourself in 5 steps”) can be as simple as having a strong resume and knowing how to present yourself—and your accomplishments—in the best possible light.