What's Not in a Name

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In 2003, a pair of researches conducted a study on racially stereotyped names in order to explore racism in the professional job market. The results were, not surprisingly, quite disappointing.

They scouted job openings and then sent out two resumes with each application, labeling one with a traditionally “White-sounding” name and one with an “African-American sounding” name. The study revealed that the resumes attached to “White” names scored more callbacks, but even more disturbing is that the resumes were completely identical in every way, save for the name of the applicant listed at the top.

This experiment points to the unavoidable presence of racial bias in the workplace; where harmful personal prejudices continue to thrive in a country that has supposedly abolished institutionalized racism.

While we would like to believe that these judgments play a less-than-minor role in our professional decision-making, they may actually rule the process entirely.

Dr. John Cotton, Professor of Management at Marquette University, cites this particular study as inspiration for his 2008 study, “The “Name Game:” Affective and Hiring Reactions to First Names.”

The “Name Game” explores this problem on an expanded scale, looking at the bias inherent to the ways we view racially diverse names and also attempting to discover whether this issue extends to ethnically diverse names.

The study asked participants to evaluate 48 names by their uniqueness and likability, selecting from categories that included “Russian,” “African American,” “Common,” and “Unusual.”

The presence of the “Russian” group was intended to test if participants would show preference to an ethnically diverse but still culturally Caucasian group, as opposed to a racially diverse group that is not traditionally Caucasian.

Dr. Cotton told BTR that the possible varied results pertaining to each group label in the study would reveal whether or not these kinds of judgments are based on “biases regarding ethnicity, race, or simply a dislike of divergence from the familiar.”

At the conclusion of his research, Dr. Cotton and his associates found that while “Common” names were seen as the least unique among all groups, they were more commonly preferred to “Unusual” names and were more likely to be hired.

Interestingly, “Russian” and “African American” names faired similarly in all regards–rated intermediately in all categories. These names were not preferred as enthusiastically as the “Common” names, but they were not disliked as much as the “Uncommon” names.

Ethnic and diverse names, however, were still selected less often than typical or common names.

So, what do these studies reveal about the way we perceive a person’s character to be as a result of their name?

“We prefer common names to notable or unique names for a few reasons,” says Dr. Cotton, “partially because people like some variety, but not anything that comes across as too strange or different.”

We favor bland or common names because those that are unique enough to become memorable often toe the line between similar and strange. This holds true even in regard to unusual spellings of common names. We may remember an odd name, but will not prefer it to a standard one.

Meanwhile, Dr. Cotton explains, Americans tend to prefer “Common” names more than ethnically or racially diverse names because we see white as the default for this country–which means we see those traditionally “White American” names as less unique or uncommon than any others.

Based on the results of the “Name Game” study, it seems that a lack of familiarity is what we find least appealing over any other factors; but in this country, anything that deviates from the white norm is considered unfamiliar. In this way, diverse names tend to attract negative attention.

“When you give a child a truly unique name, considering the name is the first criteria we use to judge others, people won’t be as accepting of them because they will see that child as unlike them,” explains Dr. Cotton.

As for what this means in the professional word, Dr. Cotton explains that we tend to judge applicants based on only a few factors including name, college, and neighborhood of residence.

If a name is the first piece of information seen on a resume, and a reviewer feels negatively toward unique names, this will harm the candidate’s chance for a callback. Further proof to the negative consequences of possessing a unique name, one study found that people rate easy-to-pronounce names more positively than others in various fields.

Dr. Simon Laham, who worked on this particular team, says that people naturally tend to favor experiences that feel positive.

“If you have an easy, and thus positive, experience processing a name, this subjective experience gets attached to that name,” says Dr. Laham. He clarifies that this experience causes someone to feel more positively towards a name because easily-processed stimuli simply feel good to the human brain.

According to Dr. Laham, these kinds of studies show that “very basic cognitive processes impact potentially important social judgments.”

In other words, race and ethnicity clearly play a major role in the hiring and promoting processes, because our brains experience difficulty in identifying similarities with those we perceive as different or other.

This kind of judgment is still very subjective. After all, individuals will hold their own opinion about what makes something easy or difficult to pronounce.

“Dependent on their culture, people make use of differing stereotypes and judgments,” says Dr. Cotton, referring to people whose standard of “default” looks and sounds differ from ours.

In India or Japan, we can assume that common American names such as Jonathan and David may not appear as frequently as they do in this country. Therefore, the entire set of naming criteria would need to be adjusted in some way to account for names that are considered normal or standard to that region.

“But certainly,” Dr. Cotton continues, “we find that in other cultures certain names may be seen as more prestigious or of a higher class.”

This means that while both Dr. Laham and Dr. Cottons’ experimental criteria would need to change before posing this same challenge to participants in other countries, results may still lead to the same racially and ethnically biased conclusions.