Psycho Babble

When Rosemary Should Be Rosy and Merry


By Jessica Love

January 5, 2012



In fiction, as in physics, little happens by accident. What goes up comes down; the stranger lurking in chapter two reappears in chapter nine. Indeed, in literature even the most arbitrary details can take on extraordinary significance. A character’s hair color will symbolize a fiery or even treacherous temperament (much to the disappointment of redheaded schoolchildren reading Anne of Green Gables or As You Like It). Similarly, a character’s name is often meaningful. The Scarlet Letter’s Chillingsworth and Dimmesdale behave just as a chillingly and dimly as they aught. A friend of mine recently mentioned a more modern, and more ridiculous, example: the beautiful heroine of the movie Twilight is actually named Bella Swan.

In life, however, names are not generally to be trusted. (Not human names anyhow: Fluffy the cat is probably not hurting on fluff.) The lack of a meaningful relationship between name and person, or to a lesser degree, name and place, is also what makes names so much harder to learn and remember than other words. Cleverly designed experiments reveal a so-called baker-Baker paradox: we find it easier to learn that a particular face belongs to a baker than to learn that the same face belongs to a Mr. Baker. The word “baker” actually means something in a way “Mr. Baker” does not. Bakers wake up early, tie on their aprons, and bake. This preexisting knowledge constitutes something sturdy to which new associations can be bound.  As for “Mr. Baker,” well … we might suppose that he is male and, likelier than not, has an Anglo-Saxton ancestor.

The baker-Baker paradox has two caveats. First, we are considerably better at remembering names if we have assigned them ourselves. This is probably because the relationship between name and person is no longer arbitrary. We may see someone across the room and assign her the name Veronica because she reminds us of someone else named Veronica. This is no different than calling a fluffy creature Fluffy. If only we had more opportunities in life to name other human beings.

But caveat two is of more practical importance: to some extent, our names may be a self-fulfilling prophecy. The very arbitrariness of Mr. Baker’s name, for instance, might land him a job. A number of studies have demonstrated that having certain names—particularly those that sound ethnic or lower-class (and thus contain demographic information that makes them, well, less than arbitrary to many employers)—will hurt job seekers’ chances of landing an interview. According to economist David Figlio of Northwestern University, a girl whose name sounds more feminine (as determined by a longer length and greater frequency of “soft” consonants) is less likely to study science than her twin sister with a less feminine-sounding name.

I have often wondered if people named Mr. Baker are likelier to pursue careers in the culinary arts than are Mr. Farmers or Mr. Smiths, simply due to the dumb fact that, if one sees and writes and hears the word baker all day, surely flour and yeast are never too far out of mind. Many years ago my family participated in an Owl Prowl offered at our state park. A few dozen of us wandered through the woods at night, listening for birds (or rather listening to our ranger trying to sound like a bird, perhaps in the hope that an actual bird would take pity on him and do the job properly). I can’t remember which avian creatures cooed back. Nor can I remember the ranger’s first name, which must have been a perfectly arbitrary Dan or Bill or Peter. But the ranger’s last name will stick with me forever: Quackenbush. With a last name like that, how could “forest ranger” not have been on his radar?

Somewhat surprisingly, some evidence suggests that people’s names can prod them into careers (evidence beyond the anecdotal, of course; after all, I am not, given my last name, a sex therapist). According to psychologist Brett Pelham of Gallup, Dennises tend to become dentists (and, for that matter, to set up shop in Denver), whereas Lauras are likely candidates to become lawyers in L.A. Not all psychologists have signed on to Pelham’s study. But it seems to be the case that our names can mean absolutely nothing until, with our livelihood at stake, they suddenly mean all too much.

Jessica Love is a contributing editor of the SCHOLAR. She holds a doctorate in cognitive psychology and edits Kellogg Insight at Northwestern University.

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