How your Name Influences your Life

What’s the point in name change? – Life change?

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Names are words.

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This may be a completely obvious statement if it wasn’t for what it entails. First of all, words have to be pronounced. Secondly, words carry meaning. Both properties change how words are used. A bunch of studies has recently shown that these properties also influence how the people behind names are perceived. In essence, names open up the door for biases, misperceptions and prejudices.

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Be careful, if your name happens to be Mohammed Vougiouklakis you may not like what you’re about to read.

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Firstly, pronunciation is important. If a word is unpronounceable, it never enters a community’s language. Turns out people whose names are unpronounceable also have trouble in the community. Laham and colleagues (2012) asked Australian undergraduates to rate how good a fictional local council candidate was. Participants read a fake local news article which was always the same except for the surname of the candidate which was either difficult to pronounce (Vougiouklakis, Leszczynska) or easy (Lazaridis, Paradowska). Easy to pronounce candidates were rated better.
In another experiment, Laham and colleagues looked at the hierarchy within real US American law firms. Pronounceability was associated with the lawyer’s position in the firm’s hierarchy. This was found even just for the subset of names which were Anglo-American, likewise for the foreign name sample. So, the more easily pronounceable the name, the better your career prospects.
It is worth appreciating how weird this outcome is. People did not rate names but instead the people who carry the names. Furthermore, they had a wealth of information about them and one may think that name pronunciation is a very unimportant bit of information that is simply ignored. Nonetheless, even though it should be completely irrelevant for success name pronunciation appears to shape people’s lives.
Secondly, words have meaning. The most important meaning of a name is what it says about the community you are from. It signifies gender, ethnicity, race, region, etc. One widely known American study is Bertrand and Mullainathan’s (2004) job application study in which real job adverts were answered with fake resumes only differing in terms of name. Black sounding names (Lakisha Washington) received less call-backs than white sounding names (Emily Walsh). Furthermore, application quality was not important for black sounding names while it did change call-back rates for white sounding names.
If you are from Europe (like me) and you feel like racism is oh so American (somewhat like me before I wrote this post), bear in mind that the main finding has been replicated with local ethnic minority names in many European countries:

If he is called Tobias (rather than Fatih) he gets 14% more call-backs on applications.

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Britain – Muhammed Kalid vs. Andrew Clarke (Wood et al., 2009)
France – Bakari Bongo vs. Julien Roche (Cediey and Foroni, 2008)
Germany - Fatih Yildiz vs. Tobias Hartmann (Kaas and Manger, 2011)
Greece – Nikolai Dridanski vs. Ioannis Christou (Drydakis and Vlassis, 2010)
Netherlands – Mohammed vs. Henk (Derous et al., 2012)
Ireland (McGinnity and Lunn, 2011)
Sweden – Ali Said vs. Erik Andersson (Carlsson and Rooth, 2007)

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This is really just evidence for old fashioned discrimination in the job market. But it says more than that. In the American study, getting additional qualifications is worth it for whites while it did not have a significant impact on call-back rates for blacks. Thus, similarly to the pronunciation effect above, additional information does not reduce the effect of the obviously irrelevant name characteristics. Instead, in the case of Bertrand and Mullainathan’s study, additional information of application quality even exacerbated the race difference.
The take-home message is that people take in all sorts of objectively irrelevant information – like names – and use it to make their choices. These choices are more likely to go against you if your name is difficult to pronounce or foreign sounding. People make choices about names and these choices affect the people behind the names.
So, what is there to do? If you really want to treat people fairly, i.e. give people an equal chance independent of the names they were given or have chosen, give them a number. Because – and this will sound terribly obvious – numbers aren’t words.
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Bertrand, M., & Mullainathan, S. (2004). Are Emily and Greg More Employable Than Lakisha and Jamal? A Field Experiment on Labor Market Discrimination. The American Economic Review, 94(4), 991-1025. doi: 10.1257/0002828042002561
Carlsson, M., & Rooth, D.-O. (2007). Evidence of ethnic discrimination in the Swedish labor market using experimental data. Labour Economics, 14, 716–729. doi: 10.1016/j.labeco.2007.05.001
Cediey, E., & Foroni, F. (2008). Discrimination in Access to Employment on Grounds of Foreign Origin in France. ILO International Migration Paper 85E, International Labour Organization, Geneva, Switzerland.
Derous, E., Ryan, A.M., Nguyen, H.-H. D. (2012). Multiple categorization in resume screening: Examining effects on hiring discrimination against Arab applicants in field and lab settings. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 33, 544-570. doi: 10.1002/job.769
Drydakis, N., & Vlassis, M. (2010). Ethnic discrimination in the greek labour market: occupational access, insurance coverage and wage offers. The Manchester School, 78(3), 201–218. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9957.2009.02132.x
Kaas, L., & Manger, C. (2011). Ethnic Discrimination in Germany’s Labour Market: A Field Experiment. German Economic Review 13(1): 1–20.
Laham, S.M., Koval, P., Alter, A.L. (2012). The name-pronunciation effect: Why people like Mr. Smith more than Mr. Colquhoun. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48(3), 752-756. doi: 10.1016/j.jesp.2011.12.002
McGinnity, F., & Lunn, P.D. (2011). Measuring discrimination facing ethnic minority job applicants: an Irish experiment. Work Employment Society, 25(4), 693-708. doi: 10.1177/0950017011419722
Wood, M., Hales, J., Purdon, S., Sejersen, T., & Hayllar, O. (2009). A Test for Racial Discrimination in Recruitment Practice in British Cities. Department for Work and Pensions Research Report No. 607.
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images:

1) Muhammad Ali by Ira Rosenberg

2) as found in Kaas, L., & Manger, C. (2011). Ethnic Discrimination in Germany’s Labour Market: A Field Experiment. German Economic Review 13(1): 1–20.

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3 comments

  1. Pingback: Quora
  2. Hi Richard, I have a question for you.

    My surname is “Serralheiro” and i’m thinking about start a blog in english for a greater comprisement. Later i have in mind go living to London and live there.
    So I considered about changing my surname to “Locksmith” which is the translation of my surname to english. As some of what you said, i want people to understand my name and be able to pronounce it… I actually like it, to me it sounds good, but there’s a problem: I don’t know if they (In English) use this surname, if it even is a surname, so it may sound stupid in English.
    So that’s my doubt, should I use this name or keep my own (portuguese) name? Or eventualy use it as my stage name (for my blog or so)?

  3. Hi Barb,

    I have thought quite a lot about your comment.

    The reviewed articles offer quite good experimental controls and very good ecological validity, i.e. applying their take-home message to real life seems justified.

    However, look at the details: the foreign-name studies only consider call-back rates in a specific job. What happens after a call back is another question (The unpronounceability issue does not apply to you, I would say.). So whether in your specific field (media?), country, nationality and throughout the entire application process your name will be a disadvantage is not clear.

    I am not a British national, but when I still lived in Britain I never encountered someone called ‘Locksmith’.

    So, in sum, I am very unsure whether I would change my name if I were you.

    Personally, I do not work under a pseudonym even though I have a foreign sounding surname and write for an English speaking audience.

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