What’s In a Name? New Research Suggests We Look Like Our Name

What’s in a name? Perhaps more than we might think, according to researchers at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Most of us are familiar with the dynamic of “judging a book by its cover,” making quick judgments about a person based on initial appearance. But in a recent study led by Dr. Ruth Mayo and Yonat Zwebner, researchers investigated the opposite: can a person’s facial appearance be significantly influenced by their given name? The research suggests, “yes!”

In eight separate studies, independent participants were recruited and shown color headshots of random people. Participants were asked to choose the name of each individual from a list of names provided with each picture. The outcome: time and again observers chose correctly more than not. For example, when looking at a photo and considering four names – Jacob, Dan, Josef, or Nathaniel – participants chose the correct name “Dan” 38% of the time, which is above the 25% chance level for a random guess. Researchers found consistent results when controlling for ethnicity and age. And, even computers surpassed the odds by matching the correct name to a face to a clinically significant degree.

An interesting dynamic that researchers suggest from this study is the existence of shared face-name prototypes. It was remarkable that participants were unable to match names to faces from a culture other than their own, which indicates the possibility that shared face-name prototypes (eg. stereotypes) which are common in various cultures are necessary for the face-name matching effect to happen.

The study also suggests that the dynamic of self-fulfilling prophecy might be at work. Researchers found that participants still chose correctly above the chance level for random guess even when they could only see the participants’ hair style, suggesting that people may choose a hair style according to a stereotype that matches their name.

Though the idea of a self-fulfilling prophecy is not new, researchers believe their contribution is innovative by demonstrating that the way we look is possibly impacted by the social tag we’re given at birth, one’s name. And since this name is given at birth, often before birth and independent from one’s face, researchers find it statistically plausible that the connection between facial appearance and social perception is a two-way street.

Researchers of this study are hopeful that their work will bring increased understanding of the important role social structuring plays in a person’s development. Gender, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status are all understood social structures that impact a person’s individual formation and identity. But the possibility that a simple choice – the giving of one’s name – might have a significantly greater impact on one’s development than previously imagined is both intriguing, innovative, and worth increasing consideration.

To read more about the study, click here.