The Psychology of Names: Some Thoughts

What’s the psychology of names? Why do our names matter so much? Why does it matter to so many that at the Oscars ceremony John Travolta mistakenly introduced Idina Menzel as “Adele Nazeem”? Although singer/performer Menzel reportedly has laughingly “let it go,” many others have found it to be a major gaffe worthy of continued shaming. Many have Tweeted, many have “Travoltified”—or distorted their own names—at Salon.com. (Yours truly, Rhys Johnzon, included.)

What if you don’t like the name given you? Journalist Carlin Flora, author of Friendfluence, has said in Psychology Today:

Whether people swoon over—or even disdain—our name is beyond our control. Ultimately, self-esteem and the esteem of the world dictate the degree to which we hold our name dear. Like our vocation or hometown, we tout our name as a distinguishing mark if it ‘fits.’ If it doesn’t, we might say that, like an inaccurate horoscope, we don’t believe in that stuff anyway. We’ll change our name, disregard it or consider it just a synonym for me.

That sounds about right to me.

One would think it’s just better to have an easier name, though. A recent study, reported by Medical Xpress, found that if your name is easier to pronounce, you’ll likely be more trusted by strangers—“even if those strangers are all from the same country,” they’re clear to add.

Psychologist Adam Alter, author of Drunk Tank Pink: And Other Unexpected Forces That Shape How We Think, Feel, and Behave (2013), notes that difficult pronunciations are troublesome not just with our names, but with other things too. And people prefer the easier ways.

Another thing Alter finds interesting regarding the psychology of names is aptronyms, those that tend to strongly suit their owners, at least over time and when we choose careers. According to Wikipediaeven way back when, psychologist Carl Jung noted there’s sometimes a “quite grotesque coincidence between a man’s name and his peculiarities.”

Likewise, an article in The Week points out that “people are unconsciously drawn to things, people, and places that sound like their own names. Psychologists call this phenomenon ‘implicit egotism’.” Jung believed, for instance, that his own interest in rebirth may have been influenced by his last name.

Examples? Some good aptronyms are available on the Wikipedia page. This is just a sampling:

Interviewed on NPR, Alter also stressed the significance of our names’ initials. “…(I)f you ask people what their favorite initials are, they will say that the initials of their names, their first and last name, are often favored.” So what, you say. Well, what if because of this, you donate more money when a hurricane shares your initial? Yup. Those with “K” names gave 10 percent of what was received for Hurricane Katrina. Donations to any crisis relief by the “K’s” before Katrina? Only 4 percent.

Which means that we all should hope that the hardest hitting storms in the future won’t have the added misfortune of being called Zelda or Xena.

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