Thursday, January 29, 2009

What's in a name?

ResearchBlogging.orgWe all feel bad for those poor kids whose parents have some sick sense of humor - you know, like poor little Talula does the Hula from Hawaii or Adolf. But new research suggests there might be even more to it. Male teens with unpopular names are more likely to commit crime, regardless of race.

A new study in the journal Social Science Quarterly compared the first names of juvenile delinquents to other teens in the population. The names were given a Popularity-Name Index (PNI) based on how frequently that name was chosen by the population - a kid named Michael, for example, had a high PNI while Pilot Inspektor would only have a PNI of 0. They then correlated the PNI with the level of crime committed, and found strong results.

Juvenile males with unpopular names were more likely to commit crime. Increases from 0 to 100 PNI increase the likelihood of crime by 36.7%. While some might interject and say that many minority or ethnic names would score low on the PNI, the key and interesting point is that this trend was regardless of race - it's a lot stronger, in fact, in whites (36.8% increase from 0-100 PNI versus 19.2% from 0-100 for blacks). Unpopular names were correlated with lower socioeconomic status and one-parent households, but I wouldn't be so sure that this explains everything. The differences in probability of these factors between a PNI of 0 and one of 100 are small - about 6% more likely to live with both parents if you've got a popular name. And the county of residence's average per-capita income increases only $800 from 0 to 100 PNI - which isn't that much. Though, to be fair, we would have to look at the individual household's income to really judge how socioeconomic status is related. Anecdotally, plenty of rich, two-parent households name their kids strange things - just look at Celebrities.

It seems likely that having a truly strange name has a negative impact on a child's upbringing, and family situation and economic status exacerbate the issue. While all kids with weird names get the ridicule, those with less than fortunate family situations would have less support to draw on to help deal with the situation, and would thus feel even more outcast. Without a support system, it's only logical that these children would then be more likely to act out or turn to violence or crime to deal with their situations. Other studies have found, for example, that having a strange name reduces the likelihood of getting a call-back after a job interview, so there is reason to believe it really is all in a name.

So if you're going to have children, you might want to think twice about naming your son Kal-el. While a unique, interesting name might be fun for you, it might have a negative impact on your child's well being. Perhaps you should stick to something popular for your area. Or, at least, try and avoid Blue Angel or Heavenly Hiraani Tiger Lily. I mean, really- where do people come up with this stuff?

David E. Kalist, Daniel Y. Lee (2009). First Names and Crime: Does Unpopularity Spell Trouble? Social Science Quarterly, 90 (1), 39-49 DOI: 10.1111/j.1540-6237.2009.00601.x


Cunning_Linguist said...

No wonder I go into toy stores and put all the action figures in compromising positions. All my mother's fault for naming me Cunning Linguist I guess.

Raging Wombat said...

I've heard about this before, how kids with unusual names will get poorer grades in school, partly because they are scorned, unconsciously, by their teachers. This actually did influence what my wife and I named our kids. They all have perfectly normal names. They all have some significance to us, but no teacher, or parole officer, will ever stumble over their names. Great post.

Anonymous said...

Oh, toughen up kiddies.

Really, I think Talula is perfectly nice name (Number 16 Bus Shelter, not so sure).

The middle bits might need some work, but Talula Hawaii sounds quite pleasant and tropical.

I plan on giving any children I get naiming rights to unique names. Having a common-as-mud name can be annoying. There will always be another Michael in school or work, there'll always be idiotic celebrities with that name, you ignore your name in public, or turn around when strangers aren't talking to you, and you'll just end up being lumped with some kind of (unsavoury) moniker by the other school kids so they can uniquely identify you.

Ed Yong said...

Lisa Bonet recently named her latest child Nakoa-Wolf Manakauapo Namakaeha Momoa, who joins her other child Zoe.

Cunning_Linguist said...

Apple Paltrow......


'Nuff said.

DoodleBunz/DB Impressions said...

While slightly out of the ordinary names can be endearing, some things that folks come up with is...shocking, I suppose. Maybe I'm old fashioned, but I can see how an "abnormal" name could add stress.

Livio L. said...

What about adopted sons? My son has an unusual name for my country because I have adopted him. Must I worry?

Seabrooke said...

As a person with an unusual first name, I found this post interesting. I believe I have a PNI of 0. I never felt the urge to go out and commit crimes, but I'm not an adolescent male, either. :)

I don't doubt that I was picked on more during those years when kids have a tendency to be pretty mean to each other, but I made it out the other side alright, I think, and these days I'm pretty grateful to not be just another Jennifer or Sarah. I get a lot of compliments on my name, and it sticks in people's minds better, too - a helpful thing, when one's trying to make a name for oneself.