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Can Your Name Make You a Criminal?

An Interesting Article From Time.com.

In a new study to be published in the March issue of Social Science Quarterly, David Kalist and Daniel Lee, economists at Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania, find that adolescent boys with unpopular names are more likely than other boys to have been referred to the juvenile-justice system for alleged offenses. The researchers conclude that the Ernests, Prestons and Tyrells of America are significantly more delinquent than the Michaels and Davids. Why?

The short answer is that our names play an important role in shaping the way we see ourselves β€” and, more important, how others see us. Abundant academic literature proves these points. A 1993 paper found that most people perceive those with unconventionally spelled names (Patric, Geoffrey) as less likely to be moral, warm, and successful. A 2001 paper found that we have a tendency to judge boys’ trustworthiness and masculinity from their names (as a guy whose middle name is Ashley, I can attest to the second part). In a 2007 paper (here’s a PDF), University of Florida economist David Figlio found that boys with names commonly given to girls are more likely to be suspended from school. And an influential 1998 paper co-authored by psychologist Melvin (a challenging first name if there ever was one) Manis of the University of Michigan, reported that “having an unusual name leads to unfavorable reactions in others, which then leads to unfavorable evaluations of the self.”

Our first names also say a great deal about the extent of privilege enjoyed by the people who picked those names for us, our parents. In the new paper, Kalist and Lee point out that previous research has shown that the name Allison is rarely given to girls whose mothers didn’t finish high school; it is frequently given to girls whose mothers have 17 years or more of schooling. On average, parents with less schooling are more likely to pick unpopular names for their kids.

How do you define unpopular? For their study, Kalist and Lee accumulated all 15,012 names given to the boys born in one large state during the period 1987 to 1991. (To get the boys’ names, the authors had to agree not to reveal the state’s name.) The researchers developed an equation that gave the most popular name of the period, Michael, a score of 100. The name David got a 50. Ernest, Preston, Tyrell, Kareem, Malcolm, Alec β€” all were given 1. Kalist and Lee theorized that the boys with the lower-scoring names might commit more delinquent acts.

Which is exactly what they found. The relationship is quite predictable and linear: if you pick a name that’s 10% more popular than Ernest (Maxwell is the example that Kalist gave me), the population of Maxwells will have 3.7% fewer delinquents than the population of Ernests. Pretty neat, right?

The name doesn’t cause the crime, of course, and the way people react to the name isn’t the only other factor at work. Rather, boys with unpopular names are more likely to live in single-parent households and have less money. Those with unpopular names may also find it harder to get jobs because of the negative stigma toward certain names β€” particularly names likely to be given to African-Americans like Kareem. And the unemployed are more likely to commit crime than those who work.

Does this mean we all have to name our kids something boring like John? What about the Baracks who manifestly overcome their name’s unpopularity ? Isn’t Silverstein right: won’t a boy named Sue learn to be strong? Sometimes, yes. In a 2004 paper, Saku Aura of the University of Missouri and Gregory Hess of Claremont McKenna College point out that many African-American kids with what the authors call “blacker” names reap an important benefit: they have an improved sense of self as a member of an identified group.

But the preponderance of the research suggests that the improved sense of self may not overcome the discrimination toward people with unusual names. In other words, if you’re trying to decide on a name for a newborn, consider Bob. It may be boring, but it’s also safe.

Categories: Blog, In the News, Interest Tags: , ,
  1. Jared
    January 31, 2009 at 10:10 am

    This reminds me, I have a friend called Eugene who almost had a life of crime…. then he found God and changed his name… so the question is, which of the two actually stopped his criminal activities? πŸ™‚

  2. Sue
    July 6, 2009 at 6:03 am

    His name, definitely.

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