WASHINGTON — Alexandra will get an A in class but Amber won't. At least, that's what their peers expect, according to a small new study of the meanings encoded in people's names.
"The name you give your kid is sort of a proxy for a whole bunch of things in our culture," study researcher John Waggoner of Bloomberg University of Pennsylvania told LiveScience. Names have been linked to many life choices, including what kind of work people do and how they donate to charity.
Previous studies have shown that what people name their children varies by their socioeconomic status and education level. Waggoner and his colleagues wondered if people's names affect what others expect of them.
What's in a name?
The researchers asked a group of 89 undergraduate students (about half of whom were prospective teachers) to guess, on a scale of 1 ("not very successful") to 10 ("very successful") how they thought a student with a certain name would perform academically.
Participants tended to judge those with names that have been correlated with lower maternal education and socioeconomic status as low educational achievers, compared with the possessors of higher-status names. [See Full List of names and expectations]
"What future teachers expect is that Cody will do a lot worse in school, relatively, than Benjamin and Samuel," Waggoner said. "The more things you have going for you, the better people expect you to do."
The lowest-ranked names were Travis, with an average of 5.55 on the scale, and Amber, with a 5.74. The highest rankers were Katherine with a 7.42 and Samuel with a 7.20. The 2-point gap between the highest- and lowest-ranked names equates to a 20 percent difference in perceived academic success.
Research is still lacking on how this correlates to actual academic success, though other studies have associated low maternal education and socioeconomic status with lower educational success.
Certain names show up at different types of colleges more frequently, too.
"Katherine goes to the private school, statistically; Lauren goes to my school [a public university], and Briana goes to community college," Waggoner told LiveScience. "Sierra and Dakota, they don't go to college."
Shifting over time
There were some outliers, Waggoner said. Study participants didn't show any difference in their ratings of names such as Robert and Benjamin, though Robert is associated with low maternal socioeconomic status and Benjamin is associated with high maternal education and socioeconomic status.
And as with other trends, name associations change. "Names that start out as high maternal education and SES, like Robert, [that] used to signify really high achievement, tend to filter down to lower maternal SES and education," Waggoner said.
As the authors write, "Today's Alexandra may be tomorrow's Amber."
Waggoner presented his data May 26 at an Association for Psychological Science meeting.
Live Science newsletter
Stay up to date on the latest science news by signing up for our Essentials newsletter.
Jennifer Welsh is a Connecticut-based science writer and editor and a regular contributor to Live Science. She also has several years of bench work in cancer research and anti-viral drug discovery under her belt. She has previously written for Science News, VerywellHealth, The Scientist, Discover Magazine, WIRED Science, and Business Insider.