In psychological terms, context is almost everything. Much as we like to think that we know how we will act and react in a given situation, without the richness of...
Naming a child is one of life’s great pleasures. With the excitement of a new life arriving, comes the responsibility of ‘branding’ that life. It probably helps that this bit comes before all the screaming and sleepless nights!
But how to choose a name? Which parent doesn’t pour over lists of names in baby books, just in case they stumble across a combination of letters that sets of some kind of sense that THIS is the right name for her child.
In my case, my son was named after my grandfather (George), and despite the fact that my wife had sworn she would never have a child of that name after teaching a boy who was unimaginably unpleasant.
My daughter’s name proved more difficult. As best I can recall Martha’s name was the result of reading a lot of girl’s names and a connection to a favourite song of that name by Tom Waits. It was only later that we learned that ‘George & Martha’ is a US kids’ show and that George Washington’s wife was called Martha.
Or was that really how we chose those names?
What is the process that means when we see a name it ‘feels’ right.
And what has any of this got to do with naming your child after a killer?
University of Pennsylvania researcher, Jonah Berger, and colleagues looked at trends in baby names to see if they could help reveal why things come and go in terms of popularity.
They hypothesised that names might sound ‘right’ when they were based on similar sounds to names in previous years. Having broken down each name into phonemes – the sounds that make up a word – and looked at the way popular names changed, they discovered it was true: people chose names that contained sounds from names that were popular around the time they were making the choice.
Put another way, we may like to feel we’re being creative and different; in fact we’re just inching away from a culturally reinforced starting point. So it is that a name like Gladys feels outmoded and wrong (sorry to anyone called Gladys reading this), but a name like Jack feels current.
What about the killers?
To check their hypothesis, the team then looked at what impact the names from hurricanes had, particularly those that had been sufficiently devastating to obtain widespread media coverage.
Sure enough, the more destructive hurricanes had influenced the popularity of phonemes: for instance after Hurricane Katrina there was a 9% increase in names that began with the letter ‘K’.
Given that the printed word is a relatively recent invention, we have relied on passing important ideas and thoughts down through word of mouth for thousands of years.
As a result we’ve evolved to absorb what we hear around us frequently, presumably on the basis that what we hear about a lot is most significant and factor it into our behaviour without realising.
This same mechanism is what brands exploit when they create a slogan or tagline. In the end we reference it unconsciously and it influences what ‘feels’ right.
Source: Association for Psychological Science. “It’s all in the name: Predicting popularity through psychological science.” ScienceDaily, 11 Jun. 2012. Web. 2 Jul. 2012
Image courtesy: Sergiu Bacioiu