Celebrities aren't the only ones giving their babies unusual names. Compared with decades ago, parents are choosing less common names for kids, which could suggest an emphasis on uniqueness and individualism, according to new research.
Essentially, today's kids (and later adults) will stand out from classmates. For instance, in the 1950s, the average first-grade class of 30 children would have had at least one boy named James (top name in 1950), while in 2013, six classes will be necessary to find only one Jacob, even though that was the most common boys' name in 2007.
The researchers suspect the uptick of unusual baby names could be a sign of a change in culture from one that applauded fitting in to today's emphasis on being unique and standing out. When taken too far, however, this individualism could also lead to narcissism, according to study researcher Jean Twenge, of San Diego State University.
Baby naming history
The results come from an analysis of 325 million baby names recorded by the Social Security Administration from 1880 to 2007. The research team figured out the percentage of babies given the most popular name or a name among the 10, 20, or 50 most popular for that year and sex. Since it wasn't required that people get a social security card until 1937, names before that time may not be random samples of the population, the researchers note.
Results showed parents were less likely to choose those popular names as time went on. For instance, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, about 5 percent of babies were named the top common name, while more recently that dropped to 1 percent.
- About 40 percent of boys received one of the 10 most common names in the 1880s, while now fewer than 10 percent do.
- For girls, the percentage with a top-10 name dropped from 25 percent in about 1945 to 8 percent in 2007.
- Similar results were seen for the top-50 names. About half of girls received one of the 50 most popular names until the mid-20th century. Now, just one in four have these names.
(A list of top-10 baby names by year, and their popularity, can be found here.)
This trend in baby-naming didn't show a constant decrease. Between 1880 and 1919, fewer parents were giving their children common names, though from 1920 to the 1940s common names were used more often than before. Then, when baby boomers came on the scene, so did more unusual names.
The biggest decrease in usage of common names came in the 1990s, said Twenge, who is also an author of "The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement" (Free Press, 2009) and "Generation Me: Why Today's Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled – and More Miserable Than Ever Before" (Free Press, 2007).
The results held even when the researchers accounted for immigration rates and increasing Latino populations, which could bring relatively less common names into the mix.
"The most compelling explanation left is this idea that parents are much more focused on their children standing out," Twenge told LiveScience. "There's been this cultural shift toward focusing on the individual, toward standing out and being unique as opposed to fitting in with the group and following the rules."
The positive side of individualism, Twenge said, is that there is less prejudice and more tolerance for minority groups. But she warns that when individualism is taken too far, the result is narcissism.
"I think it is an indication of our culture becoming more narcissistic," Twenge said.
Past research has shown that back in the 1950s parents placed a lot of importance on a child being obedient, which has gone way down. "Parenting has become more permissive and more child-focused and [parents] are much more reluctant to be authority figures," Twenge said.
As for whether these unusually named kids will have personalities to match is not known.
"It remains to be seen whether having a unique name necessarily leads to narcissism later in life," Twenge said. "If that unique name is part of a parent's overall philosophy that their child is special and needs to stand out and that fitting in is a bad thing, then that could lead to those personality traits."
The research, which is detailed in the January issue of the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, also included Emodish M. Abebe of SDSU and W. Keith Campbell of the University of Georgia in Athens.
Live Science newsletter
Stay up to date on the latest science news by signing up for our Essentials newsletter.
Jeanna served as editor-in-chief of Live Science. Previously, she was an assistant editor at Scholastic's Science World magazine. Jeanna has an English degree from Salisbury University, a master's degree in biogeochemistry and environmental sciences from the University of Maryland, and a graduate science journalism degree from New York University. She has worked as a biologist in Florida, where she monitored wetlands and did field surveys for endangered species. She also received an ocean sciences journalism fellowship from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.