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Science Says Giving Kids These Kinds of Names Makes Them More Successful

What’s in a name? Far more than you might have imagined, according to this research.

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BY Bill Murphy Jr. - 10 May 2017

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

The wealthiest parents, who can choose to do almost anything to give their kids an edge, overwhelmingly make one choice for their children: they move to the best neighborhood they can find.

But what if you don't have money? What's the best thing you can do for them early on in life, that costs nothing?

According to research from UCLA, there's another choice that any parent can make, regardless of financial means: It's to give their children first names that leverage other people's biases--and that are more likely to make other people respect them at first meeting, and assume that they are successful, throughout their lives.

Dr. Albert Mehrabian, an emeritus professor at UCLA who is behind the work, says he's identified 20 names--10 specific first names that are traditionally for boys, and 10 for girls--which carry with them connotations of success.

While he conducted his research in the early 2000s, he wrote in an email last month that he still believes his conclusions are valid: "There are trendy names that come and go in terms of desirable connotations," he said, "but the classic good ones have lasting power."

 

The methodology

Mehrabian's findings come from a series of seven research projects, in which slightly more than 2,000 study participants were presented with a total of 2,845 first names. They were then asked their assumptions about what strangers with the various names would be like.

In an attempt to identify names that made it more likely that people would think they were successful, Mehrabian's research sought names that caused others to assume that people with the names were ambitious, intelligent, independent, confident, assertive, and creative.

"There are other connotations names have that parents should consider," Mehrabian told me, as "success' was "only one of [his] dimensions for rating names."

The others were the degree to which particular names suggested to strangers that someone would be: (a) ethical and caring, (b) popular and fun; or (c) masculine or feminine. We'll examine the other dimensions in future articles--but first, the "successful" names, and what parents can take away from the research.

 

The 20 actual names

For several years, Mehrabian was distributing a self-published book called Baby Name Report Card: Beneficial and Harmful Baby Names. It's apparently out of print now, but the specific names that his research revealed survive in a few corners of the Internet.

While there is a bit more nuance involved, ideally, than saying that parents should just look to this short list when naming their kids, let's not hide the list from you. Here are the 20 specific names that Mehrabian found made people more likely to be perceived as successful. From perception flows reality, so the theory goes.

The highest-rated names for girls, in terms of success, were:

• Jacqueline

• Morgan

• Elizabeth

• Katherine

• Victoria

• Lauraine

• Susan

• Catherine

• Kate

• Madeleine

And, for boys, the highest rated names in terms of success were:

• Steven

• Ross

• Christopher

• James

• Robert

• David

• Kenneth

• Parker

• Thomas

• Madison

 

How to use the list

Mehrabian pointed me to his 2001 monograph on his research, entitled Characteristics Attributed to Individuals on the Basis of Their First Names. It's interesting reading, but it's also impossible to ignore the idea that the specific names that connote success might change over time.

Thus, the real utility might be to identify what components or characteristics made people who had these names seem most successful--versus simply parroting them when naming kids.

A few names on the list pop out as having had more resonance, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, perhaps: Ross and Madison for example. Meantime, there are three variations of Catherine among the 20 (Catherine, Katherine, and Kate); one might wonder what was going on in say, 1999, that might have triggered that reaction.

Also, it's clear that all 20 of the names on the list are Western, even Eurocentric. You won't find a Satya or a Sheryl, or an Elon, or a Sundar on it.

But, it's fair to summarize that Mehrabian found that names that are more easily recognizable, that, have conventional spelling, and that are less often shortened into a nickname, were more advantageous. Additionally, it's smart to consider how historic connotations affect people's perceptions of various names, Mehrabian told one interviewer:

"When you think of 'Alexander,' you think of Alexander the Great; 'Elizabeth' and you think of Queen Elizabeth. ... [and] the "harshness and softness of sounds, the visual image of a letter and choice of letter at the beginning and end of a name also have an effect."

That said, Mehrabian writes that many parents handicap their kids by giving them less desirable names--even when they have the best of intentions. As a fairly new parent myself, I remember the many, many hours that my wife and I put into choosing our daughter's name. It can be an intimidating decision--and that's the danger, Mehrabian says.

"I've seen parents do just incredible things with their poor children's names because they were creative and thought they were going to be unique," Mehrabian told Bloomberg last year, adding: "Believe me, you don't want to name a child with an unattractive name and have them go through life and suffer the consequences."