The idea that our names are intertwined with our destinies goes at least as far back as the book of Genesis in the Bible, when Abram saw his name changed to Abraham, which means "father of multitudes" in Hebrew.
In more recent years, social psychology research has connected people's names to decisions they make in whom to marry, what street to live on and what they do for a living — all based on how similar the names were to a person’s own name.
But University of Pennsylvania researcher Uri Simonsohn is stirring controversy by questioning how much our names really matter in making life's more important decisions. Simonsohn examined whether people are likely to choose their workplaces based on how similar the company names are to their own.
The study, to be published in a forthcoming issue of the journal Psychological Science, is based on a sample of 438,000 Americans who had donated to political campaigns in 2004. It was designed to parallel a similar Belgian study that used a sample that included about a third of the general population and found people were overrepresented by 13 percent at businesses where the first three letters in the name matched those in their own names. (The raw Belgian data was unavailable for the new study.)
After controlling for people working at companies named for themselves or family members, as is common in law firms and other businesses, the effects of name similarity appeared to vanish, Simonsohn found. [Most Popular Names in History]
What’s in a name?
Regarding studies that have found a name-job link, "they're finding reverse causality rather than some subconscious attraction to names that are similar to your name," Simonsohn said. [Baby Names Reveal More About Parents Than Ever Before]
But Simonsohn's findings were contradicted by Frederik Anseel, a professor of industrial and organizational psychology at Ghent University and co-author of the Belgian study.
"We do not really agree with Simonsohn's points that the potential confounds eliminate the name-letter effect," Anseel told LiveScience. Anseel has written a response currently under review by Psychological Science.
Cultural differences might account for the discrepancy. Simonsohn points to the possibility that a higher percentage of Americans may start their own businesses. (A direct comparison to Simonsohn's study would be difficult, Anseel noted, because similar political donations are illegal in Belgium.) Anseel said, however, the effect of name similarity on decisions has been found in several countries around the world.
Anseel said that in light of Simonsohn's paper, "the effect becomes less strong," in his own research, but still stands.
Jean Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University, was skeptical that Simonsohn's study means people don't have an affinity for companies with names like their own.
"This is not representative of the population in any way, shape or form," Twenge said of the sample, explaining that the people involved, being political donors, were likely richer and would be more likely to own their own businesses. "This happens to be a variable that affects the variables he's analyzing."
Dennis the dentist
Previous research has found an affinity for name similarity in several areas. For example, more dentists are named Dennis than what would be expected by chance. (Although Andrew Gelman, director of the Applied Statistics Center at Columbia University, has noted that dentists only accounts for a fraction of people named Dennis.)
In a previous paper, Simonsohn had critiqued some of that research, including criticizing the idea that people choose spouses with similar names. Simonsohn's research suggested spousal similarity in names is likely due to ethnicity. Spouses with similar names, he said, emerge from having a similar ethnicity and background; among people of the same ethnicity in his sample, people with more similar names weren't more likely to marry.
"I'm certainly open to it," said Simonsohn of the idea of name affinities, adding, "If somebody tells me you base a major decision on a name, I would be skeptical. You need a major piece of evidence to do that."
But Simonsohn does not completely dismiss the possibility of a connection between our names and life choices.
He said the most convincing research he has seen came in a 2008 study from the University of Michigan showing that people were more likely to donate following a hurricane if they shared an initial with the name of the hurricane. For instance, if your name were Rachel, you'd be more likely than others on average to donate to Hurricane Rita charities. (The study itself begins with the story of a woman named Katrina selling lemonade to raise money following Hurricane Katrina.)
"That make sense — that is a decision for which people are nearly indifferent," said Simonsohn, referring to the multitude of good charities where people could donate money. But Simonsohn said his skepticism rises when the decisions are larger – where it would take a significant push to make people choose one option over another. For example, people are unlikely to alter their career choices for $100 or $1,000, he said.
So the notion that we make decisions for unconscious — and sometimes seemingly foolish — reasons may be an uncomfortable one.
"We think it is important to consider that people do not always make rational choices for important decisions in their lives," Anseel said. "We like to think of ourselves as rational beings making a very deliberate assessment of pros and cons when choosing a job, but our research shows that other factors might come into play without us being aware of it."