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Commentary: What's in a name - maybe less than you think

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 25, 2013 - In Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the two star-crossed lovers bemoan the fate of having different last names. In response to Juliet’s question “What’s in a name?” modern-day economists have found that the answer is quite a bit.

Having a bias lowers the cost to decision making. With bias, one quickly assigns a preconceived trait, perhaps based on previous experience, to all that fit a specific condition.

No more information need be acquired. You’ve heard them before: fat people are jolly, Asians are better at math, economics professors are dull, etc. While some biases may fit the “average” or archetypal person in the group, they often fail spectacularly when applied to an individual.

Marianne Bertrand and Sendhil Mullainathan, economists at the University of Chicago and M.I.T., respectively, tested for racial bias in a novel way: They looked at names.

Theses researchers responded to help-wanted ads in Boston and Chicago newspapers by submitting fictitious resumes in which all the information was identical except for one aspect: some had “White” sounding first names, others had “Black” sounding first names. Their experiment covered a wide variety of occupations and employer sizes. The outcome was that applications with White names were statistically more likely to receive call-backs for an interview than those with African-American names. Do names preclude social mobility?

Others have found different results. Roland Fryer of Harvard and Steven Levitt of Chicago examined naming patterns by Black and White parents between 1961 and 2000. Based on a large sample of children born in California during this time, they found that among the African-American community, the frequency of distinctively Black first names increased sharply in the late 1960s. Fryer and Levitt suggest that such naming patterns coincide with the Black Power movement and how Blacks began to perceive their identity. Did those babies born at this time face the bias found in the Bertrand study when they reached adulthood? Controlling for other factors such as income, education, etc., Fryer and Levitt found little evidence that “Black” first names had lasting, negative impacts on later life outcomes.

If parents discover that naming conventions might adversely affect the economic future of their children, would the trend persist? Some argue that naming conventions reflect “identity” or provide children with ownership of their name. But, if naming your baby Moonbeam or Emily or Omaha could negatively impact their future, would rational parents continue the practice? Since naming conventions evolve over time — will today’s Cody and Tyler go the way of yesteryear’s Orville and Myrtle? — my guess is that first names impart little long-term economic effect.

Research shows that your name also may mark your social status. At this year’s meeting of the American Economic Association, Gregory Clark, an economist at the University of California-Davis, discussed research showing that surnames can act as a proxy to assess movement between social classes. Controlling for other factors, this work demonstrates that social mobility across generations is much slower than previously thought. In other words, if a surname in 1800 is associated with upper income groups, then that surname generally remains in that social class over time. Similarly, for those surnames common among individuals in lower income groups, the name does not appear in higher social orders in future years.

It isn’t that your name confers social status but the slow mobility up and down the income ladder gives your name status over time. The evidence suggests that slow social mobility is fairly universal across time and countries. Even in egalitarian Sweden, upper echelon jobs — lawyers, doctors, etc. — tend to be populated with common surnames over time.

The more isolated we become from other groups in society, an isolation that comes from associating only with those of like income or social status, it is likely that social mobility will slow even more. 

Are we headed to the kind of class sclerosis that has long infected European society? Should any action be taken to slow or prevent such an outcome?

Your surname is, for good or ill, an endowment to future generations. Perhaps that choice of first name for your child shouldn’t raise the hurdle to success any higher.

Rik Hafer is a distinguished research professor in the Department of Economics and Finance at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville and a scholar at the Show-Me Institute. 

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