“I have a horrible, horrible name…
this name has been holding me back my entire life.
It's probably why kids picked on me in school
and why I never do well with women.”
“A person's first-name may be a determining factor
in his development of personality, acquisition of friends,
and in all probability, in his success or failure in life.”
Names determine life outcomes. This is an insistent claim. Lay people and psychologists make it. The first quote stems from Chandler Bing, a character from the sitcom Friends (Bright, 2003). The second quote stems from William Walton, a psychologist and co-founder of name-research (Walton, 1937). Considering the sources’ differences, the quotes’ similarities are remarkable. Hence, in choosing our first-names, did our parents lay the grounds for how we get treated by others? And does such interpersonal treatment in turn affect our life outcomes?
In 2009, Julia Kube, University of Oldenburg, investigated the influence of first names on children's educational opportunities. One popular headline that popped up in the press when Kube’s results were published was “Kevin is not a name but a diagnosis.” Her research revealed that teachers are prejudiced against specific names such as Kevin or Chantal, which are associated with low socio-economic backgrounds in Austria, Germany, and Switzerland. Specifically, teachers tend to perceive children with negative names (e.g., Kevin and Chantal) to be less intelligent and less achieving than children with positive names (e.g., Lukas and Hannah). This name-based devaluation may, in turn, dampen negatively named children's educational prospects and their personal development.
When it comes to online-dating does our name predict how much attention we get from potential partners? In other words, does our name have a unique influence on our dating success? And if so, does this kind of attention versus neglect on the online-dating site mirror a life history of interpersonal neglect that is detrimental to own personal development?
We test a model of name-based interpersonal neglect. The model suggests that certain names evoke negative interpersonal reactions, and these negative interpersonal reactions dampen life outcomes.
Specifically, our theoretical model looks like this:
Results are based on more than 900 German-speaking eDarling online-daters who have first names from the Kube-list.
Name valence: Building on the “Kevinism” phenomenon, Kube (2009) identified culturally devalued first names and pitted them against culturally valued first names. We used this list to compare the attention received by people with maximally positive and negative first names.
Interpersonal neglect: At eDarling, individuals receive a certain number of partner suggestions every day. These suggestions contain only the first name, age, and hometown of each potential partner. Based on this information online-daters either show interest in the potential partner (by pressing a link to the full profile) or neglect a potential partner (by ignoring the link). Hence, interpersonally neglected individuals are those online-daters whose profile received only a small number of first visits, relative to the number of times they were suggested as potential partners.
Life outcomes: In the process of setting-up online-dating profiles at eDarling participants completed a questionnaire that provided information about participants' self-esteem, smoking, and education.
► Negatively-named individuals were particularly strong neglected by potential partners.
For example, participants with the most positive name (Jakob) received 90% more first visits on their dating profile (relative to opportunity) than participants with the most negative name (Kevin)!
► Negative names were associated with lower self-esteem, more smoking, and less education.
► Interpersonal neglect also predicted lower self-esteem, more smoking, and less education.
► Interpersonal neglect mediated the link between name-valence and all three life outcomes. That is, the direct association between negative names and worst life outcomes was partially explained by interpersonal neglect.
Our results support the name-based interpersonal neglect hypothesis: Negatively-named individuals were more likely to be neglected by other online-daters.
German-speaking singles apparently prefer to remain single (and continue paying for online-dating) over looking at the profile of potential partners with “Kevinism” names.
Apparent name-effects on life outcomes may be due to a shared determinant: parental factors (genes, upbringing). However, Müller (2008; cited in Kube, 2009) examined birth records in Germany and found no sign of heightened “Kevinism” in families with lower socioeconomic status.
The results suggest that negative names can evoke negative interpersonal reactions, which in turn dampen life outcomes. This reminds us that seemingly benign factors, such as first names, add up in real life, gaining considerable collective power in determining one’s feeling, thought, and behavior. Interpersonal neglect on the online-dating site, thus, could be understood as mirroring a life history of interpersonal neglect in the real world.
What practical implications do our results carry?
From a dating-perspective it seems tempting to conclude that in German-speaking countries Kevin would gain from introducing himself as Alexander. Yet, Oscar Wilde’s play The Importance of Being Ernest poses a word of warning: In support of our model, Gwendolen falls in love with a man mainly because he calls himself Ernest. However, when she finds out that he lied about his name, she rejects him particularly harshly.
This report is based on the following scientific manuscript:
Gebauer, J. E., Leary, M. R., & Neberich, W. (2011). Unfortunate first-names: Effects of name-based relational devaluation and interpersonal neglect. Unpublished Manuscript, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin.
Bright, K.S. (Executive Producer). (2003). Friends [Television series]. New York: National Broadcasting Company.
Kube, J. (2009). Vornamen von Grundschulkindern als Basis der Bildung von Vorurteilen und Etikettierung von Persönlichkeitsmerkmalen? [First-names of elementary school children as basis of prejudice and perceived personality?] Unpublished master thesis, University of Oldenburg.
Walton, W. E. (1937). The affective value of first names. Journal of Applied Psychology, 21, 396-409. doi: 10.1037/h0058632