The Surprising Psychology of Names

Adam Alter, author of Drunk Tank Pink: And Other Unexpected Forces That Shape How We Think, Feel, and Behave, summarizes the surprising psychology of names:

In one study, the economists Bentley Coffey and Patrick McLaughlin examined whether female lawyers in South Carolina were more likely to become judges if their names were more “masculine.” Some names—like James, John, and Michael—are almost exclusively male; others—like Hazel, Ashley, and Laurie—are almost exclusively female. But a third group is shared almost equally by men and women—like Kerry and Jody—and women with those names were notably more likely than their nominally feminine counterparts to become judges. The researchers labelled the phenomenon the Portia Hypothesis, after the female character in Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice” who disguises herself as a man so she can appear before the all-male court. (Note that the experiment can’t rule out the possibility that the nominally masculine lawyers actually behaved differently from their nominally feminine counterparts.)

The most interesting point was the inherent biases that develop (I confess to thinking hilly implies going uphill, for example) in association to names:

Similar linguistic associations influence how we think and behave in other ways. For example, if I told you that I was driving north across hilly terrain tomorrow, would you expect that drive to be mostly uphill or mostly downhill? If you’re like most people, you associate northerly movement with going uphill, and southerly movement with going downhill. According to research by the psychologists Leif Nelson and Joseph Simmons, this association produces some strange biases: people believe that a bird will take longer to migrate between the same two points if it flies north than if it flies south; they expect a moving company to charge eighty per cent more to move furniture north rather than south; and, as a different study concluded, they assume that property is more valuable when it sits in the northern part of town. Apparently these quirks stem from the decision of early Greek mapmakers to plot the northern hemisphere above the southern hemisphere—a decision that frustrated, among others, an Australian named Stuart McArthur, who proposed a corrective map that reversed the projection.

Interesting.

 

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