Our names 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. 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.
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 resist 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. Given this information about teachers’ reactions to names, we can logically assume that the same types of reactions occur in people in other professions and in similar supervisory relationships.Teachers and students happen to be relatively easy groups to study.
As a result, these groups tend to be investigated more than others. Until more 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.