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29 Aug 2011

Names and Our Unconscious Biases

Our names unconsciously influence people. We humorously smile at actors who change their names making them more appealing. Yet, some people relate because they wish their parents had given them better names.

Even in a field striving for objectivity such as science, your name can influence the peer review process. In the August 20, 2011 issue of The Economist, the article “A Black and White Answer” reports racial name research by Donna Ginther of The University of Kansas indicating it does. The article also references the 2003 racial name study, Racial Bias in Hiring, by Marianne Bertrand of the University of Chicago and Sendhil Mullainathan at the time of Massachusetts Institute of Technology in which names influenced who received job interviews.

While the article focused on the racial connotation of names, an October 23, 2008 article of The New York Times mentions research about non-racial correlations focused on similar names, initials, sounds and letters. Of course, if we overlay the concept of branding from advertising on these two areas of research and the territory between them, we come back to “what’s in a name?”

From an intuitive perspective, what connotation does each of our names have? What feelings do people get when they hear it? How do we feel when we run across names far different from ours, ones we can’t pronounce? Subconsciously, do they trigger our defense mechanisms? All you need to do is look at popular baby names to know we do not distribute names randomly even if we account for ethnicity.

What we can learn from science in this research is that no matter how objective we think we are it is no match for the unconscious emotions truly driving our decisions.


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