Names and Behavior

By H. Edward Deluzain

In the article "Names and Personality," the point was made that our self-concepts function much like scripts that we act out in our day-to-day contact with other people. To put this idea another way, the way we see ourselves behaving is more or less the way we do behave in any given situation. According to this line of thinking, because names can have an effect on self-concept, names can indirectly influence how we act. However, research into the ways names affect people has uncovered a link that shows that our names--or at least other people's reactions to our names--influence the way we behave even more directly.

One of the classic pieces of research on the relationship between names and behavior was conducted in Africa by G. Johoda of University College of the Gold Coast. In discussions with teachers and social workers on the formation of character in young people, Jahoda discovered that the people he was working with--all of whom were Ashanti--sincerely believed that the day of the week on which a person was born has a lot to do with the kind of character traits and behavior the person will show throughout life. Specifically, Jahoda learned that the Ashanti believe that boys (but apparently not girls) who are born on Monday will be mild mannered and peace loving, but those born on Wednesday will be violent and aggressive.

By itself, the superstition that the day of the week of a person's birth has some sort of magical power over the person is not all that uncommon around the world. In fact, as Christopher Anderson points out in The Name Game, we have a popular nursery rhyme in our own culture that expresses more or less the same idea:

Monday's child is fair of face,
Tuesday's child is full of grace;
Wednesday's child is full of woe,
Thursday's child has far to go;
Friday's child is loving and giving,
Saturday's child works hard for a living;
But the child that is born on the Sabbath day,
Is bonny, and blithe, and good, and gay.

Even though this superstition may be widespread, the point that aroused Jahoda's curiosity about the ashanti version of it was the fact that some of the best educated and most sophisticated members of the Ashanti community were so convinced that it was true that they were willing to use the idea in serious academic discussion to explain how character develops. Apparently they had seen enough evidence of how people born on Monday and Wednesday behaved to convince them that the superstition was fact.

When he looked into the matter further, Jahoda learned that the Ashanti were keenly aware of the day of the week they were born on because one of their customs dictated that the day name be included in the person's name, along with any other names given at birth. Thus, Ashanti boys born on Monday or Wednesday knew they were born on one of those days because the Ashanti equivalent of Monday or Wednesday was part of their names. Unlike most Americans, who are either unaware of the day of the week of their birth or unconcerned about it, the Ashanti had the information constantly called to their attention.

Jahoda's research took the form of reviewing the records of the local juvenile court to see if any pattern emerged that would confirm the local belief. The results were rather striking. In the five-year period that the court records covered, 13.5f the boys referred to the juvenile authorities had Wednesday as part of their names. When the offenses were analyzed, it turned out that these boys were responsible for almost 22f all the violent acts recorded by the court. The number of violent acts committed by the boys born on Wednesday was significantly higher than would be expected through mere chance, and it showed that Wednesdays tended to live up to the reputation. As for the boys born on Monday, they made up on 6.9f all the juvenile delinquents. When this figure was compared to the number of Mondays in the population (about 13 it bore out the superstition that boys born on that day would lead more peaceful and law-abiding lives.

Jahoda concluded from all this that there was nothing magical about the day of the week the boys were born on. Instead, the behavior of the boys named Monday or Wednesday was the result of the expectations the culture had for them, expectations that were reinforced and brought to mind by parents, teachers, school friends, and others every time their names were mentioned. Mondays were expected to be good and were; Wednesdays were expected to be bad and were, also (Jahoda).

At the time this experiment was conducted, the results had some important implications for psychology because, until then, there was very little support for the idea that people, especially children, tend to live up to what is expected of them. However, the study has ever greater significance for an understanding of how names affect human behavior because names played such an important part among the Ashanti in communicating expectations to the individual. Had the Ashanti boys born on Wednesday not been named Wednesday, it is doubtful that the belief about how they were supposed to behave would have had any more effect on them than the "Monday's child" nursery rhyme has on us. But they were named Wednesday, and every time they heard the superstition they knew it was supposed to apply to them. Furthermore, every time a person named Wednesday got into a fight, the rest of the community was reinforced in thinking that the superstition about people named Wednesday was correct.

The process at work among the Ashanti is part of the psychological phenomenon of stereotyping, in which names often play an important part. Stereotyping is certainly not limited to the Ashanti, of course; in fact, we engage in it constantly, both as perpetrator and victim. Nor does stereotyping always cause negative or socially undesirable behavior--after all, the Ashanti boys born on Monday were stereotyped just as much as those born on Wednesday. Nevertheless, stereotyping on the basis of a name does mean that our names have direct influence over how we act.

The process that gives names their influence is the so-called self-fulfilling prophecy. Briefly explained, the self-fulfilling prophecy works this way. A man introduces himself to us as Percy. Immediately, our unconscious mind goes to work dredging up all the images and associations we have with that name. Without realizing it, we develop a mental picture--a set of expectations--of what a Percy is like. This mental picture causes changes in our own behavior that are so subtle that we are not aware of them. However, Percy picks up on the messages we are sending by our actions, and he makes unconscious changes in his own way of acting to satisfy what he thinks we expect of him. In other words, we set up a situation which forces Percy to behave the way we think Percys are supposed to behave.

This process does not necessarily occur in every chance encounter or casual meeting, although it very well can happen under these circumstances. However, it does occur sometimes in long-term relationships, especially those involving people on different status levels, such as a foreman-worker or teacher-student relationship. A major research study conducted in schools pointed this out.

The study in question was conducted by Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson in the late 1960's. The researchers told a group of teachers that their classes contained a number of children who had the ability to do well in their studies if they were given a little extra encouragement. The classes were made up of ordinary groups of students assigned at random, but the teachers were led to set high expectations for them on the basis of what they had been told. At the end of the term, the results of tests indicated that a significant number of students learned more that year than would ordinarily be expected during a single school term. In effect, the prophecy of high achievement fulfilled itself (Rosenthal and Jacobson).

The point at issue in Rosenthal and Jacobson's experiment was not names, but the same principle applied in their research as applied to the Ashanti, where names did play a part. The insight into the self-fulfilling prophecy has been used in research on the effects of names on the way children perform in school, with some rather startling results.

Two investigators who made use of this insight were Herbert Harari and John W. McDavid. They were aware from previous studies that the "more common names are regarded as generally more attractive, and they connote more favorable stereotypes. In contrast, the rare and unusual names are deemed less socially attractive and they connote negative stereotypes" (Harari and McDavid). They decided to test out the effects these facts would have on how teachers grade students' essays by giving a group of eighty experienced teachers eight essays--four written by girls and four by boys--and asking the teachers to mark them. The essays were all of roughly the same quality, and the only identification on them was a first name and a bogus last initial. The boys' names used were David, Elmer, Hubert, and Michael, and the girls' names were Adelle, Bertha, Karen, and Lisa. The eight essays were all on different subjects, so Harari and McDavid took the precaution of mixing up the names and essays. In other words, in one teacher's packet the essay about Tarzan had the name David on it, while in another packet the name David was on the essay about kites.

Before starting their work, the researchers predicted that papers attributed to children with common, popular names would get the higher scores, and among the boys, at least, their prediction was correct. Papers "written" by David got the highest marks, those by Michael the second highest, those by Elmer the third highest, and those by Hubert the lowest. The girls' papers were ranked somewhat differently than Harari and McDavid had predicted: those by Adelle got the highest marks, followed by papers by Lisa, Karen, and Bertha, in that order. If the prediction had been perfectly accurate, Adelle would have followed Lisa and Karen. However, Harari and McDavid pointed out that the name Adelle has a strong stereotype of "scholarly" associated with it, and this stereotype may have been too strong for teachers to resis as they graded the essays.

In order to make sure that their conclusion about names influencing the teachers' grading was correct, Harari and McDavid repeated the experiment using eighty undergraduate psychology students as graders. The data from this group showed no pattern whatsoever, and this confirmed the original idea that there was nothing about the essays themselves or the way in which the experiment was conducted that biased the results. Instead, the experienced teachers had developed definite positive attitudes toward children with more popular names over the years, and they unconsciously favored these children as they graded their papers (Harari and McDavid).

Harari and McDavid were followed by others who confirmed their findings and added details to the information they had gathered. In a sense, Harari and McDavid's work was done under "laboratory" conditions--the teachers were real enough, of course, but the students were fictitious and the experiment was set up with a particular end-product in mind. The question of whether similar results could be found among "real" students in "real" schools remained open. The first answer came from Gary Garwood in the experiment described in the essay "Names and Personality."

Garwood had a group of seventy-nine teachers rate boys' names as desirable or undesirable. Then he compared academic achievement scores for a group of boys with desirable names to a group with undesirable names, and he discovered that the average score for the group with desirable names was almost twice as high as the average for the group with undesirable names. Garwood concluded, with considerable understatement, that, "Teachers, for the most part, are the arbitrators of what is success and what is failure in our schools. Most teachers probably believe that their interactions with students are fair and unbiased and that their evaluations of students are based only on merit. This is perhaps as idealistic stance . . ." (Garwood).

Garwood's research was followed by a study by Thomas Busse and Louisa Seraydarian of Temple University. They found the same kind of relationship between desirable names and school achievement that Garwood found, but they went a step further and discovered a positive relationship between desirability of names and IQ (Busse and Seraydarian).

The combined impact of the findings of Harari, McDavid, Garwood, Busse, and Seraydarian is as startling as the implications are frightening. To be sure, names are only one of a host of personal attributes which are subject to stereotyped reactions, and the extent of the importance of names, as compared to such personal factors as hair color, body shape, physical attractiveness, etc., has not yet been fully explored. However, one thing is clear: names, or at least teachers' reactions to name stereotypes, do have an influence on how children perform in school.

Given this information about teachers' reactions to names, we can logically assume that the same type of reactions occur in people in other professions and in similar supervisory relationships. Teachers and students happen to be relatively easy groups to study, and the relevant dependent variables (e.g., IQ scores, achievement test scores, etc.) are easy for researchers to access. As a result, these groups tend to be investigated more than others. However, as the example of the Ashanti illustrated, stereotyping and the self-fulfilling prophecy are by no means limited to the academic world. So, until research results are available, we can only wonder how many people fail to receive promotions in the military or on the assembly line because of their names. We can only speculate about how many sales are lost or promising political careers are never gotten off the ground because of a name.


Works Cited

Busse, Thomas V. and Louisa Seraydarian. "The Relationship Between First Name Desirability and School Readiness, IQ, and School Achievement." Psychology in the Schools 15 (1978): 297-302.

Harari, Herbert and John W. McDavid. "Name Stereotypes and Teachers' Expectations." Journal of Educational Psychology 65 (1973): 222-225.

Jahoda, G. "A Note on Ashanti Names and Their Relationship to Personality." British Journal of Psychology 45 (1954): 192-195.

Rosenthal, Robert and Lenore Jacobson. Pygmalion in the Classroom: Teacher Expectation and Pupils' Intellectual Development. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1968.

Copyright ©1996 by H. Edward Deluzain. Permission is hereby granted to print this file and to disseminate it in hard copy or online, provided it is not changed in any way.