Parents want to believe that they make a big difference in the kind of people their children turn out to be. We can see this in the first “official act” a parent performs—naming the child. In recent years, there have been hundreds of books written about the importance of naming one’s child. Parents sense that their child’s name can somehow “predict” the child’s success in life.
The final chapter of the book will study the influence of baby names on a child’s life. Is it possible that names can cause people to lead different lives?
In 1958, a man named Robert Lane had two children. He named one child Winner, and the other, Loser. Strangely, Loser Lane went on to be a pretty successful man: he went to prep school on a scholarship, and eventually became a detective sergeant for the NYPD. His colleagues call him Lou. Winner Lane, on the other hand, became a career criminal, and has spent most of his adult life behind bars. We might ask—what effect does a child’s name have on its development? Does the name really matter?
The chapter begins with an interesting example: two children who altogether failed to “live up to” their names. If a name influences a child’s development, one might have expected Winner to succeed and Loser to fail. (It’s also possible that Loser was motivated to fight for success because of his belittling name—a real-life version of the Johnny Cash song, “A Boy Named Sue.”)
To begin studying this issue, we can return to the ideas of Roland Fryer, whom we encountered in the last chapter. Fryer has studied the segregation of black and white culture: black and white people watch different TV, smoke different cigarettes, buy different brands, etc. Fryer wondered: was the distinctive black culture in America a cause or just a reflection of the economic disparity between white and black people? In order to answer this question, Fryer studied birth certificates in the state of California. One interesting point he came across was that black and white families give their children strikingly different kinds of names. Other minorities, such as Asian-Americans and, to a lesser degree, Hispanic-Americans, tend to give their babies names that are somewhat similar to the names for white babies. There is, one could say, a “black-white naming gap.” This gap is a recent phenomenon—before the 1970s, there was a great overlap between white and black names. For example, the typical black baby born before 1970 was likely to receive a name that was twice as common among blacks as it was among whites. After 1980, the figure had shot up to twenty times as common.
Fryer’s research suggests some of the major differences between the African-American community and other American minority communities. The behavior of certain minority communities seems to suggest a desire to integrate with white America—this might explain why, for example, Asian-American families are, on average, likely to give their children common “white names.” Like any good economist, Fryer begins his research by analyzing a trend—the increase in distinctively black names in America in the last thirty years. A logical hypothesis to explain this trend is that many black families don’t want to integrate with the norms of white America (which is, perhaps, completely reasonable, considering the history of racism in America at all social and institutional levels).
Statistically speaking, there are some distinctively black names. For example, of the 454 people named Precious in the 1990s, 431 were black. By contrast, the vast majority of people named Wyatt, Tanner, Claire, and Molly are white. What kinds of mothers are likely to give their children distinctly black names? The statistics indicate that these mothers are usually low-income, unmarried, and uneducated, often still in their teens. Fryer hypothesizes that giving a child a distinctly black name is a sign of solidarity with the black community. Giving a black baby a “white name,” such as Emily, Katie, or Amy, could be condemned as a sign of “acting white.”
Fryer isn’t saying that it’s good or bad for black families to want to integrate with white American culture; he’s just hypothesizing that the desire to remain separate from white culture and show solidarity with black culture is a reason for the rise of distinctively black names.
In a practical sense, the perceived whiteness or blackness of one’s name can make a big difference. In one study, researchers sent identical resumes to different companies, some with the name “DeShawn Williams” (a stereotypically black-sounding name), others with the name “Jake Williams” (a stereotypically white-sounding name). Disturbingly, the “Jake Williams” resumes gleaned significantly more job interviews. But it’s not totally clear why “DeShawn Williams” is less likely to get the job interview. It could be because employers are biased against black people. It could also be because “DeShawn” sounds like someone from a low-income, low-education family. Also, the study doesn’t say what would happen if “Jake Williams” came to a job interview and turned out to be black—would the employer refuse to hire him after meeting him face-to-face?
This study is another good example of how the authors refrain from rushing to conclusions based on their own political or moral beliefs. While it might seem likely that racism is to blame for the “interview gap” between Jake Williams and DeShawn Williams, Levitt and Dubner conclude that there is insufficient evidence for such a conclusion. Levitt and Dubner aren’t denying that such a hypothesis could be true; they simply can’t reach such a conclusion based on their current evidence, due to the number of competing hypotheses.
In general, it’s very difficult to measure the real-life outcomes of a distinctively black name. One way to do so is to look at people who change their names as adults. People change their names for racial reasons all the time. For decades, Jewish actors in Hollywood dropped their Jewish surnames to sound more “white” (for example, the famous actor Kirk Douglas was born Issur Danielovitch). The question is, would a black man named DeShawn Williams get more job interviews if he changed his name to Connor Williams?
In order to understand the racial biases of names, we would have to study the people who grow up with distinctively black names and then change their names to sound distinctively white. If such people began to experience measurable improvements in their quality of life, there would be evidence that names can cause differences in one’s quality of life, rather than merely reflecting these differences.
To answer this question, the authors look at the California data that Fryer examined. Data suggests that, on average, women with distinctively black names have a worse “life outcome” (income, educational level, reported happiness, etc.) than women with distinctively white names. However, this difference in life outcome isn’t caused by the name itself; for example, if two children named Jake and DeShawn grew up in the neighborhood, they’d be equally likely to have a successful life outcome. Statistically speaking, the name “DeShawn” is not a cause of one’s life outcome, but rather a reflection of it: people with the name “DeShawn” are likely to be born in low-income neighborhoods to uneducated parents—factors which, as we saw in the previous chapter, have a major impact on child development.
In the end, the authors suggest that the link between distinctively ethnic-sounding names and life outcome is an example of correlation, not causation. Tragically, minorities often experience a lower quality of life in America, due to hundreds of race- and class-based factors. But distinctively black-sounding names themselves do not seem to cause a lower quality of life overall.
A related question: is there any discernible pattern in the popularity of certain names over time? The authors have found that certain baby names correlate closely with the parents’ socioeconomic status. For example, the most common female name in middle-class white households is Sarah, the most common female name for working-class white households is Ashley, and the most common female name for upper-class white households is Alexandra. There are many other ways to correlate names with income level. For example, there are at least ten distinct ways to spell the name “Jasmin,” each of which correlates closely with a particular income level. Given the spelling of the name, it would be possible to guess the parents’ income level with a fair degree of accuracy.
For the second half of the chapter, the authors study changes in names over time, especially across class lines. There is a very strong correlation between certain names and the parents’ socioeconomic status, to the point where even the spelling of a given name correlates with status.
When studying trends in baby naming, it’s important to keep in mind that names change in popularity very quickly. For example, only one of the ten most common names for white girls, Sarah, appeared on the top ten lists for both 1980 and 2000. One important trend to notice is that names that begin as common upper-class names tend to become common working-class names over time. For example, Heather was a common name for upper-class girls thirty years ago; it’s now one of the most common names for working-class girls. One reason for this phenomenon is that names can be aspirational: sometimes, people give their babies upper-class sounding names based on the hope that their babies will become successful in life.
There appears to be a “trickle down” effect when it comes to baby names. A name that’s initially popular among affluent parents will eventually become popular among working-class parents. Having identified this statistical trend, the authors propose an explanation: working-class parents want their children to be financially successful in life, and think that an affluent-sounding name will inspire or motivate the child to be more financially successful.
The book predicts that in the year 2015, girl names such as Ava, Maya, Sophie, Isabel, and Emma will be very common, along with boy names such as Carter, Jackson, Oliver, Will, and Aidan. The authors make their predictions based on the popularity of these names among upper-class families in the year 2005.
In the ten years since Freakonomics was published, the authors’ predictions appear to have come true—a quick look at the Census Bureau’s list of common names suggest that many of the names Levitt and Dubner list have indeed become very popular!
There are many reasons why parents give their children certain names, and admittedly, not all parents want to give their children “high-end” names. Nevertheless, almost all parents are trying to “signal something” when they give their child a name. In short, the California data suggests that “an overwhelming number of parents use a name to signal their own expectations of how successful their children will be.” Even if the name itself does not cause a child to become successful, it indicates how the parents conceive of success.
Parents give their children certain names in order to send a message about the kind of lives they want their children to live. As Fryer argued, black parents who give their children distinctively black names seem to want their children to grow up with strong ties to the black community. Similarly, working-class parents often give their children affluent-sounding names because they want their children to become affluent adults.