Can Your Name Make You a Criminal?

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In the Shel Silverstein–penned Johnny Cash hit "A Boy Named Sue," a father explains that he gave his son so improbable a name because "I knew you'd have to get tough or die, and it's that name that helped to make you strong." It turns out that your first name may also help make you a criminal.

In a new study to be published in the March issue of Social Science Quarterly, David Kalist and Daniel Lee, economists at Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania, find that adolescent boys with unpopular names are likelier than other boys to be referred to the juvenile-justice system for alleged offenses. The researchers conclude that the Ernests, Prestons and Tyrells of America are significantly more delinquent than the Michaels and Davids. Why? (See the top 10 crime stories of 2008.)

The short answer is that our names play an important role in shaping the way we see ourselves — and, more important, how others see us. Abundant academic literature proves these points. A 1993 paper found that most people perceive those with unconventionally spelled names (Patric, Geoffrey) as less likely to be moral, warm and successful. A 2001 paper found that we have a tendency to judge boys' trustworthiness and masculinity from their names. (As a guy whose middle name is Ashley, I can attest to the second part.) In a 2007 paper (here's a PDF), University of Florida economist David Figlio found that boys with names commonly given to girls are likelier to be suspended from school. And an influential 1998 paper co-authored by psychologist Melvin (a challenging first name if there ever was one) Manis of the University of Michigan reported that "having an unusual name leads to unfavorable reactions in others, which then leads to unfavorable evaluations of the self."

Our first names also say a great deal about the extent of privilege enjoyed by the people who picked those names for us, our parents. In the new paper, Kalist and Lee point out that previous research has shown that the name Allison is rarely given to girls whose mothers didn't finish high school but is frequently given to girls whose mothers have 17 years or more of schooling. On average, parents with less schooling are likelier to pick unpopular names for their kids. (See pictures of a diverse group of American teens.)

How do you define unpopular? For their study, Kalist and Lee accumulated all 15,012 names given to the boys born in one large state between 1987 and 1991. (To get the boys' names, the authors had to agree not to reveal the state's name.) The researchers developed an equation that gave the most popular name of the period, Michael, a score of 100. The name David got a 50. Ernest, Preston, Tyrell, Kareem, Malcolm, Alec were each given a 1. Kalist and Lee theorized that the boys with the lower-scoring names might commit more delinquent acts.

Which is exactly what they found. The relationship is quite predictable and linear: if you pick a name that's 10% more popular than Ernest (Maxwell is the example that Kalist gave me), the population of Maxwells will have 3.7% fewer delinquents than the population of Ernests. Pretty neat, right?

The name doesn't cause the crime, of course, and the way people react to the name isn't the only other factor at work. Rather, boys with unpopular names are likelier to live in single-parent households and have less money. Those with unpopular names may also find it harder to get jobs because of the negative stigma toward certain names — particularly names likely to be given to African Americans, like Kareem. And the unemployed are likelier to commit crimes than those who work.

Does this mean we all have to name our kids something boring like John? What about the Baracks who manifestly overcome their name's unpopularity ? Isn't Silverstein right: Won't a boy named Sue learn to be strong? Sometimes, yes. In a 2004 paper, Saku Aura of the University of Missouri and Gregory Hess of Claremont McKenna College point out that many African-American kids with what the authors call "blacker" names reap an important benefit: they have an improved sense of self as a member of an identified group.

But the preponderance of the research suggests that the improved sense of self may not overcome the discrimination toward people with unusual names. In other words, if you're trying to decide on a name for a newborn, consider Bob. It may be boring, but it's also safe.

Help Joel Stein name his baby!

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