Friday, April 25, 2014

Can Baby Names Predict the Future?: My Junior Research Paper

I mentioned a while ago that I wrote my junior research paper on baby names. I loved writing about my favorite topic, and I got to read some of my favorite blogs for research. It's a long essay (nine pages), so I'm putting it after the jump. Enjoy! (disclaimer: I bashed The Secret Universe of Names a little bit, but it's actually one of my favorite baby name books. You should buy it. It's great). P.S. This is my 200th post (wow)!

Can Baby Names Predict the Future?


Every parent wants to set their child up for the best life possible. Parents have different ideas about what will make their child a smarter, more educated, and successful individual, even before the baby is born. Some buy special “belly speakers” so the baby can listen to music in the womb, while others go on a specific diet all throughout their pregnancy. These are optional, but one choice every parent has to make for their baby is what his or her name is going to be. Whether or not they realize it, parents are trying to control their child’s destiny through the chosen name. As Laura Wattenberg puts it, “Baby names are a heartfelt expression of parents’ deepest hopes for their children” (Wattenberg). Parents who want their child to stand out might pick an uncommon name, while parents who hope their child will be intelligent might pick a name that sounds studious. Other parents take this decision to the extreme. A parent following the Kabalarian Philosophy would make sure to pick a balanced name, and one that wouldn’t cause their child any health issues later in life (Kabalarian Philosophy). A parent who read The Secret Universe of Names would want to choose a name with the right sounds, one that is strong in all four areas, Charisma, Career Success, Love and Friendship, and Power (Feinson, xxxvi). No matter what name the child ends up with, it is likely the name reveals the parents’ desires for the child in some way, shape, or form. Parents love to be in control of their children, so, whether consciously or not, they impose their dreams for their baby’s future on their child in the form of a name. In reality, the child’s destiny is not affected by their name at all. Parents spend hours searching for the name that will make their child successful, smart, and normal, while still standing out from the crowd. These guidelines are worthless when it comes to the child’s future. Names do not determine destiny because there is no correlation between one’s name and one’s success, personality, or future.

            An audit study shows what seems to be a correlation between one’s name and one’s success at getting called for a job interview. Two identical resumes were sent to the same person, but one had a “black name” and the other a “white name.” The “black names” were ones that sounded made-up, such as Damarion, or had a unique spelling, such as Izayah instead of Isaiah.  The “white names” were more likely to have Anglo-Saxon roots, such as Katherine, Henry, or Rebecca (Sides). A person with a stereotypical “black name” was much less likely to get a job interview than a person with a so-called “white name.” Researchers concluded that having a “black name” hurt one’s success, while a “white name” helped it (Levitt and Dubner, 187). What they didn’t consider is the effect a “white name” would have on a black person. The type of boss who would discard a resume based on the person’s “black name” would not be likely to hire a black person in the first place. Therefore, if a black person had a white name and got called for an interview, the boss would be unlikely to hire him after seeing him in person, no matter what his name is. That means that even if a black person has a “white name”, it is not going to make them anymore successful than if they had a “black name.” In both cases, neither of them got the job (Levitt and Dubner, 187).

Research shows that black people with “black names” have worse economic standing than those with “white names.” This is not a result of their names, but rather of money. As Levitt and Dubner describe it, “If two black boys, Jake Williams and DeShawn Williams, are born in the same neighborhood and into the same familial and economic circumstances, they would likely have similar life outcomes. But the kind of parents who name their son Jake don’t tend to live in the same neighborhood or share economic circumstances with the kind of parents who name their son DeShawn” (Levitt and Dubner, 187). Jake’s parents are likely to be wealthier than DeShawn’s parents, therefore likely to live in a better neighborhood. Lower-income neighborhoods like DeShawn’s have more kids with unusual or unique names (Sides). So, DeShawn’s family is very likely to be lower-income and live in a worse neighborhood than Jake’s family. Children often remain at a similar economic standing as their parents throughout their entire lives. Therefore, adult Jake is likely to be wealthier and more successful than adult DeShawn (Levitt and Dubner, 187). Similarly to the audit study, this was not an issue about names. Instead the boys’ success was determined by their parents’ success. Names may not affect destiny, but they are a good indicator of one’s possible future.

Correlations between names and destiny go way beyond “black names” and “white names.” Some parents refuse to give their child a name with an undesirable meaning, for fear it will indicate the baby’s future. Many people consider this a superstition; not all Cecelias are blind, not all Camerons have crooked noses, and not all Portias resemble pigs. Similar to these superstitious parents, followers of the Kabalarian Philosophy believe specific names cause certain destinies. According to Kabalarians, each name has a destiny that is determined through a mathematical formula. On their website they state “Your names, when reduced to a mathematical formula, actually reveal the sum total of your life- your personality, your likes and dislikes, your ideals, even the conditions and experiences you will attract in life” (Kabalarian Philosophy). The Kabalarians call names that have good destinies Balanced Names. They suggest parents should choose a balanced name for their child, to ensure their health and well-being. Kabalarians propose that each name comes with specific health problems. According to the Kabalarian Philosophy, a girl named Frances is likely to have liver problems (Kabalarian Philosophy). The chance of every girl named Frances having liver issues is slim to none. Such a broad claim cannot be possibly be true. Even so, the Kabalarians would encourage parents to choose a different name, one that is more balanced.

Whether or not the name is balanced is determined by a mysterious mathematical formula, that is not shown anywhere on the website. The only insight they give into the formula is that letters are assigned a numerical value of one through nine, which is very similar to the ancient Chinese practice of numerology (Kabalarian Philosophy).  It is likely that the Kabalarians are keeping their formula secret so people won’t accuse them of marketing numerology as their own idea. The main reason they would want to do this is to make a profit. If a parent wants to know if a name is balanced or not one must buy the Kabalarian Philosophy’s Name Guide, for a price well above that of an average baby name book. Baby naming is an up and coming business, and it seems as if the Kabalarians have figured this out. However, their naming business is smarter than most. They know that parents crave control over their child’s future, and subconsciously impose ideals through the child’s name. The Kabalarians have taken this knowledge and created a faux “equation” that can determine destiny, which helps parents choose the right name for their baby. The equation may be secret, but they can charge parents over one hundred dollars to get a list of names that will make a “balanced” baby.

The Kabalarian Philosophy has not only cashed in on baby names. A visitor to the website may feel like the Kabalarians are trying to get one to change one’s own name. Upon receiving a free name report from the Kabalarian Philosophy, the Kabalarians put emphasis on a name change, one to a Balanced Name. Near the end of the name report they state “although there are some positive ways your name shapes your personality, there are also substantial negative aspects … that may be preventing you from achieving your full potential and the happiness that comes with it… this is not a situation anyone has to accept ” (Kabalarian Philosophy). The Kabalarians make it clear that one should consider a name change, but gives no explanation of one’s bad traits or the aspects of one’s life that would disappear from a name change. Similarly to before, one has to buy an expensive guide to see what Balanced Names the Kabalarians suggest. Unfortunately, the Kabalarian Philosophy’s name theories do not hold up. They have manipulated people into buying their expensive products, and thinking a new name or one’s child’s name will dramatically alter destiny. Ultimately, the Kabalarian Philosophy is a business, and their main goal is to make money.

One reason the Kabalarians might have thought to focus on name changes is because name changes are becoming more and more popular. Between 1999 and 2003 the amount of name changes doubled. This was mostly due to 9/11, as many Muslims wanted to have more American sounding names (Bahrampour). However, some of the changes are based on style, specifically wanting a name to be more or less unique. Parents Natalie Jeremijenko and Dalton Conley changed their young son’s name to Yo Xing Heyno Augustus Eisner Alexander Weiser Knuckles Jeremijenko-Conley. The couple has a younger daughter named E (Bahrampour). There’s no doubt that Jeremijenko and Conley chose unique names for their children on purpose, but why choose a unique name in the first place? Many parents believe that giving their child a unique name will help them stand out (DeWitt).  They think an unusual name could get the child more attention on a job application, when there’s no evidence to suggest that is true (Redmond Satran and Rosenkrantz, Baby Names). Parents are striving to be unique. As Laura Wattenberg explains it, “we are all bound by a shared desire to be nothing like each other” (Wattenberg). Celebrities feel the most pressure to choose unique names. Average people criticize celebrities’ unique baby name choices all the time. Some believe obscure names like Apple and Pilot are destructive to the children’s lives, and even go so far to call celebrities’ name choices “child abuse” (Conley). Strange celebrity baby names do not harm the children at all. As Abby Sandel states, “Being named Dweezil was probably not the strangest thing about being Frank Zappa’s son” (Sandel). Parents want their children to stand out, but don’t go to the same extremes as celebrities when naming their children. Parents may choose the name Isabeau for their daughter, a name that is not even in the top 1000 list of most popular baby names (“Popular Baby Names”). The parents think they are being unique and creative, but are shocked when their daughter is called Izzy L. in class; Isabella is Izzy R., and Isabel is Izzy W. (Wattenberg). It doesn’t matter that Isabeau has an uncommon name; she’s still one of three Izzys. Isabeau is an unusual name, but its similarity to other popular names makes it seem more common. In this case and many others, a unique name did not give the bearer any advantages in life.

Other parents purposefully give their child a name is common or well known. Marijane Funess vetoed her husband’s top choices of Kareem and Cosmo in favor of the conservative Nicholas. She felt it would have been hard for her son to grow up with an uncommon name (Redmond Satran and Rosenkrantz, Baby Names). Funess is not alone. American parents are notorious for playing it safe when it comes to baby names. One of the most common worries is that the child will get teased for having a “weird name.” Bullying is a hot topic, so it’s not surprising that parents are so concerned. Most children are teased about their name at one point or another, and the teasing does not negatively affect the child long-term (Bullying Statistics). In fact, some researchers believe that having an unusual name makes children more resilient and have better impulse control. The studies suggest uniquely named kids have more practice staying in control, because of being teased about their name (Conley). Yo and E’s dad Dalton Conley has not seen this effect on his children. He even states “Yo… is as impulsive as a cocaine-addicted lab rat” (Conley). Clearly Yo’s name has no effect on his impulse control. This could be because he has not experienced much name teasing.

Experts suggest that name teasing is declining, due to the fact that kids’ names are becoming increasingly unique. Currently, slightly over eight percent of baby boys receive a name in the top ten, compared with slightly under eight percent of baby girls. Fifty years ago, thirty-three percent of baby boys had a top ten name, and twenty-four percent of girls did (Redmond Satran and Rosenkrantz, Baby Names). Parents may remember getting teased for being the only Vivian in a sea of Jennifers, Amys, and Michelles, but nowadays it is stranger for there to be two Elizabeths in a classroom (ranked at 10) than there is to be one Serenity (ranked at 58) (“Popular Baby Names”). Kids are used to their peers having names such as Maverick (356), Meadow (951), and Alfredo (492) (“Popular Baby Names”). Any of those names could inspire teasing, but today’s children don’t consider those names weird (Redmond Satran and Rosenkrantz, Name Teasing). Name teasing is dying down and does not affect kids in the long run, so parents don’t have to worry about the negative effects of giving their child and uncommon name.

There are many parents who are not worried about the popularity of name, but rather the status. One way many parents attempt to convey status is by giving their baby a brand name. Not just any brand names, designer brand names (Kang). Chanel, Armani, and Valentino are all in the top 1000 (“Popular Baby Names”). Designer brands represent style, money, and luxury. Parents hope that the designer name they give their baby will make their child wealthy, famous, and fashionable. The same is true with celebrity names. Parents dream of their children becoming movie stars, so they name their kids after celebrities hoping their dreams will come true. Not just movie stars though. Some of the most popular celebrity-inspired baby names come from reality TV. The Kardashians have had an immense impact on parent’s name choices. Khloe Kardashian’s unique spelling is number 55 on the top 1000. Over 4000 girls were named after her last year. Kylie and Kendall fall right behind her, ranking 59 and 116, respectively (“Popular Baby Names”). Parents may think that giving their kids high class names will influence their baby, but that it almost never the case. Harvard sociologist Stanley Lieberson states that designer and celebrity names lose their connections (Kang). After a while, the names drop their high class statuses. When the baby Khloes are going into the workplace, at time when status starts to matter, their name will not convey the fame and wealth it does today.

Roy Feinson believes that names can predict more than status, names can predict love, friendship, wealth, personality, and more. Feinson theorizes that the consonant sounds that make up one’s name account for one’s personality and behavior. He states, “As we unconsciously prejudge people based on the sounds of their names, our responses subtly interact with the person’s self-image, in turn affecting their responses in a classic feedback loop” (Feinson, xxxiii). Feinson’s theory is interesting, and offers hope to parents craving the next level of control. In his book, The Secret Universe of Names, Feinson gives detailed profiles of sets of names. The profiles are based off how people expect someone by a name to be, and as a result of the feedback loop, how one’s personality should be. However, the information he offers on the names are vague and not applicable to everyone of a given name. When talking about Sophias, Sofias, and Sophies, Feinson says, “SF’s are spontaneous creatures who avoid putting themselves into situations that limit their options” as well as “They have inordinately well-developed social skills, and if they cared to, could have a party with thirty of their closest friends on any given night” (Feinson, 359). Not all Sophias, Sofias, and Sophies are spontaneous and social. Many of them probably enjoy planning everything out and staying in on the weekends. Even if the sounds of the name Sophia makes one think of a carefree party girl, that personality cannot be imposed on millions of girls and women. The feedback loop theory does not work. It is impossible for everyone of the same name to share traits. While it would be fun for parents to know their child’s personality before their baby was born, Feinson’s book is simply a novelty, best used to impress friends and family members with vague knowledge of their personalities. Parents should not choose a name for their child based off of the information inside.

It would be nice to predict one’s future solely by hearing one’s name, but that cannot be done. Even though the Kabalarian Philosophy and The Secret Universe of Names suggest otherwise, their claims do not hold up. The “black names” versus “white names” audit study showed that while names can indicate success level, they don’t affect it.  Likewise, it does not matter if one’s name is popular or unique; there are no real benefits to either. That being said, parents should consider naming outside their comfort zone. Expectant parents who find themselves drawn to more common names should look at some that are more unique, and vice versa. Keeping an open mind about other names can be beneficial. A parent might fall in love with a name they never previously considered. Since names have no effect on the bearer, specific names do not make one more successful, or have a different personality. Parents should not worry about whether their child’s name is too popular, too unique, too “black,” or too “white.” None of that matters. What matters most is that parents love the name they give to their child.







  1. What a great read! A well balanced summary of a lot of the conflicting theories out there - thanks for sharing :)

    And congratulations on your 200th post!

    1. Thanks Brooke! I love your blog :)

  2. Nice to see the final product after seeing the work in progress. Definitely one of your best pieces.

    1. Muchas gracias. You must have read it more than anyone else.