Monday, November 5, 2012

You think your first name is rarer than other people do

You think you're so special, you probably think this post is about you. And maybe it is, if you too succumb to what US researcher John Kulig calls the "name uniqueness effect" - believing that your first name is more unusual than other people do.

Kulig asked 153 female students and 94 male students to rate how common their first name was on a scale from 0 to 100. The scale featured nine "anchor" names placed at the appropriate places as a guide, based on actual name frequencies obtained from the university's registrar.

For comparison, a control group of the same number of men and women each provided an estimate of the popularity of one of the names from the first group (women rated a female name, and men rated one of the male names).

Participants consistently rated their own first name as rarer than the estimates provided by participants in the control group (and as rarer than they really were, although this wasn't tested statistically). This was the case for names that were common and rare, according to university records, although slightly exaggerated for rare names. "People are motivated to be different from others," Kulig said. The phenomenon wasn't explained by the fact that some people spell their names in unusual ways.

A follow-up study was similar with 86 women and 57 men rating the frequency of their own first names, and a control group of men and women rating the names that belonged to that first group. As before, the participants estimated their names to be rarer than members of the control group did.

A clue as to the cause of the effect came from the fact that participants with (genuinely) rarer names tended to be happier with their names, consistent with Kulig's idea that we have a subconscious motivation to feel special. Also, of those who'd contemplated changing their names, the most popular reason was to obtain a rarer name. Finally, participants seemed completely unaware of "the name uniqueness effect". When participants were asked to estimate how rare other people would rate their (i.e. the participant's) name, they guessed that other people would come up with just the same rating as they had.

The new results complement a study from 2004, in which Danny Oppenheimer found that people underestimate the frequency of their own and famous people's last names. He put this down to a "discounting heuristic". Usually we overestimate the frequency of phenomena that we're familiar with (known as the availability heuristic), but Oppenheimer thinks we cancel out this bias when we're aware of a single, obvious cause of the familiarity, as we are with our own names or famous names. It's over-compensation by this process that he suggested leads us to an underestimation of the frequency of our last names.

The way we overestimate the prevalence of our names actually represents an anomaly when considered against findings showing that we tend to assume other people indulge in behaviours with a similar frequency as we do - known as "the false consensus effect." Kulig said more research is needed to find out if the "name uniqueness effect is itself a unique finding."

More generally, these new findings add to a growing literature on the psychology of our names. For example, past research has shown that we have a bias towards liking our own name and initials, and related to that, there's evidence for "nominative determinism", whereby our names influence our life opportunities and choices. A study published earlier this year, for example, claimed that people with unpopular names suffer life-long prejudice.


Kulig, J. (2012). What's in a name? Our false uniqueness! British Journal of Social Psychology DOI: 10.1111/bjso.12001

Post written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.

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