Skip to content

Names really do make a difference

Aleks pointed me to this news report by Anushka Asthana:

Parents are being warned to think long and hard when choosing names for their babies as research has discovered that girls who are given very feminine names, such as Anna, Emma or Elizabeth, are less likely to study maths or physics after the age of 16, a remarkable study has found.

Both subjects, which are traditionally seen as predominantly male, are far more popular among girls with names such as Abigail, Lauren and Ashley, which have been judged as less feminine in a linguistic test. The effect is so strong that parents can set twin daughters off on completely different career paths simply by calling them Isabella and Alex, names at either end of the spectrum. A study of 1,000 pairs of sisters in the US found that Alex was twice as likely as her twin to take maths or science at a higher level.

Part of the reason is that names provide a powerful image of a person and influence people’s reactions to them. An Isabella is less likely to study maths, according to the theory, because people would not expect her to. ‘There are plenty of exceptions but, on average, people treat Isabellas differently to Alexes,’ commented David Figlio, professor of economics at the University of Florida and the author of the report. ‘Girls with feminine names were often typecast.’ Figlio pointed to the controversy that arose over the first talking Barbie’s phrase, ‘math is hard’. ‘It is a stereotype, and girls with particularly feminine names may feel more pressure to avoid technical subjects,’ he said. Not that they were any less capable. When the Isabellas, Annas and Elizabeths took on their tougher-named peers in science, they performed just as well.

To carry out the study, to be published in the Journal of Human Resources, Figlio calculated a linguistic ‘femininity’ score for each name. It was arrived at by using 1,700 letter and sound combinations that could be associated as either female or male and matching them against the names on 1.4 million birth certificates.

He also showed how harmful giving your child a ‘chav’ or lower-status name can be. In a study of 55,000 children, the exam marks of those with ‘lower-status’ names – often spelled in an unusual way or including punctuation – were on average 3 to 5 percentage points lower than siblings with more traditional names. One of the reasons was that teachers had lower expectations of them.

Edyta Ballantyne, a primary school teacher in north London, said she would often be given the names of children in her class before meeting them and admitted that it was hard not to form judgments. ‘I think most people get an image in their head when they hear a name,’ she said. ‘If you treat a child differently because of their name, then they will behave differently. That is why the issue for every teacher is to look beyond their name.’

In his book Baby Name Report Card, UCLA psychology professor Albert Mehrabian tested a host of names to see how attractive people found them. Some names immediately aroused images of success, others of popularity or kindness. On the whole, people judged to have more traditional names such as Rachel and Robert did extremely well. More alternative names scored badly. Breeze, for example, was given 16 out of 100, while Christopher received full marks. ‘A name is part of an impression package,’ said Mehrabian. ‘Parents who make up bizarre names for their children are ignorant, arrogant or just foolish.’

Figlio argued that people should be more aware of the power of names. ‘In ways we are only beginning to understand, children with different names but the exact same upbringing grow up to have remarkably different life outcomes,’ he said.

‘If you want to give your child a name that connotes low status, then you need to be aware of the consequences.’

Popular names and their ‘femininity rating’

Isabella 1.21
Anna 1.04
Elizabeth 1.02
Emma 0.97
Jessica 0.93
Samantha 0.83
Sarah 0.78
Olivia 0.74
Hannah 0.70
Emily 0.68
Lauren 0.66
Ashley 0.63
Grace 0.50
Abigail 0.48
Alex 0.28

Unfortunately, I can’t find the actual article. The author, David Figlio, has written a paper on black kids with low-status names and a paper on boys with girly names.


  1. Eric says:

    Fascinating. I've always suspected something like this.

  2. Kieran says:

    Perhaps this is why FN David never signed her papers as Florence Nightingale David.

  3. Miguel says:

    Isn't it possible that parents who are more likely to give their daughters "non-feminine" names are also more likely to encourage them towards maths or physics? It would be interesting to see how well the names of the *child* predict whether or not the *parent* has studiet maths/physics (as well as his socio-economic status, etc…).

  4. Kaiser says:

    I have loads of questions on this one.

    "It was arrived at by using 1,700 letter and sound combinations that could be associated as either female or male and matching them against the names on 1.4 million birth certificates."

    The 1.4 million sounds impressive but how does frequency have anything to do with femininity score?

    What about the jump from "twin daughters" to "pairs of sisters" to "1.4 million birth certificates"? (This may be the journalism)

    What covariate were considered? It seems very possible that there are lurking variables.

  5. current grad student says:

    How can we possibly conclude it is the name that makes a difference? Feminine names are likely to be correlated with parents supporting a more feminine role for their child and are likely to raise their children differently.

    'In ways we are only beginning to understand, children with different names but the exact same upbringing grow up to have remarkably different life outcomes,'

    This is not a controlled experiment… there are likely to be confounding factors.

  6. Kyle Maxwell says:

    If we're just "beginning to understand", it seems to me that it's the height of arrogance to insult parents who have chosen unusual names by calling them "ignorant, arrogant or just foolish".

    I'd like to see the study to see just how much of a jump there is in such cases.

  7. Peter says:

    Interesting but….
    Anna has a very different score from Hannah? How is that?

  8. leong says:

    i hope you can give more explanation and info in your article after considering the comments of the public…and i would really like to know more about your survey or statistics in detail as im really interested in this topic