How Does Your Name Shape Who You Are?

by | Nov 29, 2018

We almost named our daughter Alwilda instead we went with Audrey.

Do names matter?

About 12 years ago I unsuccessfully attempted to change my first name from John to Kieffer.  I won’t go into why my attempt was unsuccessful, but I will relay that Kieffer does survive as my “take-out” and “table reservation” name. My reason for wanting to change my name stems from my belief that my relatively common (maybe even bland) first name doesn’t accurately reflect my personality and my sense of identity.  That leads to a very interesting question: how does your name effect how you are perceived by others and might it actually affect your personality? 

 Here are some interesting studies concerning the effects of one’s name:

TEACHERS – GRADES:  In a study in the Journal of Educational Psychology, experienced teachers were asked to grade a set of paragraphs written by 10th graders entitled “What I Did Last Sunday.” Eight different paragraphs were used, all about average in quality. Attached to these essays were eight different names: Four were relatively normal,”desirable” names: Karen, Lisa, David, and Michael; the other four – well, judge for yourself: Bertha, Adelle, Hubert, and Elmer (I actually like the name Adelle). The names were attached to the papers at random so that, for example, one paper that was labeled as written by Bertha one time was attributed to Karen or Lisa at other times.

Bottom line? Although the teachers were given identical papers, with only the names being different, they gave significantly higher grades to the papers “written” by the students with the desirable names.  Interestingly, when the same experiment was repeated with college students as the graders, the name effect did not occur. It was concluded that whereas the teachers had built up stereotyped expectations about children’s names, the college students–who had no teaching experience–did not have these expectations and so their grading was not biased.

TEST SCORES:  In another study children with “desirable” first names scored higher on a standardized test of academic achievement. One possible interpretation is that teachers expect children with more popular names to do better and so, over time, those positive expectations translate into actual higher levels of achievement.  In considering these studies, it’s important not to assume that teachers apply stereotypes anymore than anyone else. Teachers merely are easier to study because researchers can look at the grades they handed out. The same forces are probably at work in the average workplace as well as in the classroom.

FREAKANOMICS:  In the book “Freakanomics” by Stephen Levitt and Steven Dubner there is a chapter entitled “Would a Roshanda by Any Other name Smell as Sweet?”  In that chapter the authors examine the effects of having an ethnic sounding name and that person’s future economic prospects.  The chapter discusses various studies concerning names and ability to be hired for various jobs, among other things.  For example, Richard might get the interview and DeShawn, with the same resume, is often less likely to get the interview. The chapter found that one’s name can have a material effect on that person’s long-term economic prospects.

MENTAL HEALTH:  One particularly interesting study, done in 1954, looked at 1,682 case histories of children treated in a mental health clinic in New Jersey. Boys with unusual first names were more likely to have moderate or severe emotional disturbance, compared with boys with more common names. (The same effect was not found among the girls in the clinic, however.)

What is the possible connection between names and emotional problems? It may be that the parents who give their children truly odd names also tend to act in other ways that might increase psychological risk. Or perhaps growing up with an odd name leads to experiences–being teased, for example–that undermine mental health. Of course, because there is a smaller sample size of unusual names, the extreme behavior could just be a result of the small sample size.

ELECTIONS:  In a  Democratic primary race about 15 years ago the two candidates with all-American last names, Hart and Fairchild, beat two other candidates with ethnic sounding names, Sangmeister and Pucinski. Their victory was quite unexpected because the winners actually were pushing a highly unpopular political agenda, while the two losers had been enthusiastically endorsed by the Democratic Party- and the races in question occurred in the Democratic primary!  The Journal of Applied Social Psychology points out that names only seem to hold sway in elections when little or nothing else is known about the candidates – but – as we are all aware – many voters are uninformed. 

We may not choose our names, but do our names ultimately shape us?  Probably.


  1. Free Regester is so hard to do

  2. Given the importance of names, could Frank Zappa be accused of child abuse by naming his daughter Moon Unit, and his son Dweezil?
    BTW…Keiffer has a nice ring to it….if there is a will there is a way.

    • I would think that having the last name of Zappa counteracts the negatives of the names Moon Unit and Dweezil. Just my opinion.

    • Brooks are you a boy or girl? My son and daughter-in-law are naming their boy that. Also do you like your name?

  3. This IFOD reminds me of the Johnny Cash song “A Boy Named Sue”

  4. curious if any research on names that are primarily male but given to women … and vice versa … my name is Marty …. I do love hearing the surprise in people’s voice when they call asking to speak to Marty and they are expecting a man. My mother in law is Christopher… she spends a lot of time explaining. …

    • What about when you name is MARTY and you are known as PARTY MARTY… does that change your overall outcome in life… I think it might! 🙂

  5. John, there is absolutely nothing ordinary or bland about you, trust me!!!!

  6. Where does the name Kleffer come from?

    • I had decided I needed an alternative name. I was doing a lot of swimming. The brand of lap lane rope/floats was Kiefer. So, that sort of stuck in my head. I changed the spelling by adding an “f.”

      Come to find out – my alternative middle name is also Kieffer! I was at Seoul Taco a few months ago and I put in my name as Kieffer. They said “that’s an unusual name, what’s your middle name?” Without thinking I responded “it’s Kieffer as well!” Who knew?


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