Playing the Name Game

How trend-averse parents came to live in an Emily-saturated society

Playing the Name Game
[Credit: kaatjevervoort, flickr.com]
By | Posted March 24, 2010
Posted in: Life Science, uncategorized
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If Robert Goldstone hadn’t been studying naming trends when his daughter Elinor was born, he would have named her Emily. “We really liked Emily,” he said. “But at the time Emily was number one, and there was no way I was going to give my kid the most popular name in the U.S.”

These days, an expecting parent who admits to choosing a top ten baby name is as rare as a teenager who confesses she wants to look like everybody else. And yet, Emilys, like leggings and Converse sneakers, are everywhere. In fact, Emily reigned as the most popular girls’ name for 11 years until it fell to No. 3 in 2008, when it was surpassed by Emma (No. 1) and Isabella (No. 2), according to the Social Security Administration.

This fascinates Goldstone, a cognitive psychologist at Indiana University in Bloomington, who pointed out that his own name, Robert, which ranked No. 1 for two decades, has “been on the skids since the 1940s.” He has a hunch that America’s growing affinity for names like Aiden (No. 16), Brayden (No. 51) and Hayden (No. 76) has a lot to do with how our minds work.

We may be hardwired to imitate not only what’s already popular, but also what’s becoming more popular, according to Goldstone.

The hunch first came to him last year while he was writing a paper with Todd Gureckis, a psychologist at New York University whose name is also on the skids (down from No. 28 in 1970 to No. 769 in 2008). Gureckis and Goldstone analyzed name data that the Social Security Administration had collected over the past 127 years. Their results were published in the journal Topics in Cognitive Science last October.

They found that parents aren’t just choosing names they hear most often, as many cultural evolution theories predict. They’re also choosing names they’ve heard more often this year than last.

This is a surprisingly recent phenomenon, according to the researchers’ analysis. In fact, names didn’t become truly faddish until the 1980s — the decade of Brandons, Kyles, Seans, Nicoles, Courtneys, and yes, Ariels. (Almost 10,000 of us were born between 1981 and 1990.) Of course, by the 90s, these names were quickly replaced, by Jacobs, Austins, Hannahs and Samanthas. In fact, these days, the turnover rate for popular names is often less than a few years.

For most of Western history, however, a few select names garnered long-lasting devotion. William and John battled for most popular boys’ name for almost 900 years. Then, in the early 1800s, the Thomases and Jameses took over, and then the Michaels. Among girls’ names, Mary was the undisputed leader until the 1950s, when she finally succumbed to Linda and, later, to Lisa.

But names that reign for decades are a thing of the past. Goldstone would be surprised if the 2008 No. 1 name, Emma, held her ground much longer. “There’s no way in my mind that Emma is going to have that [longevity]. She’d be lucky to have a three-year run,” Goldstone said. “That’s a striking difference.”

Goldstone can’t explain what happened in the 1980s that got Americans looking for cool, new names. He suspects that the shift happened subtly. Most likely, a “tiny little trigger” — maybe just a few people who found “hot” names like Jackson or Maya appealing — snowballed into a nationwide preference for fashionable names.

But when parents notice that a name has gotten too faddy too fast, it almost invariably loses its appeal. Jonah Berger, who studies market trends and consumer decision making at the University of Pennsylvania, wrote a paper published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in May showing how names that become popular very suddenly die out faster than names that catch on more slowly. Kelsey, for example, rose from obscurity to the 23rd most popular girls’ name of 1993 in less than a decade and has since dropped to No. 196.

Berger, whose own name, Jonah (No. 137), may be teetering at the tipping point of a downfall in popularity, attributes this to our reluctance to buy clothes, invest in stocks, or call our children names we suspect won’t have long-lasting value.

Other scientists argue that naming patterns have little to do with personal preference and group psychology. Names come and go entirely by chance, according to Matt Hahn, an evolutionary biologist at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina.

Hahn wrote a paper published in Biology Letters in 2003 with Alex Bentley, a cultural anthropologist at University College London, illustrating that name trends, “even the really really big spikes,” can be explained by simple statistical models. The models are similar to those used to study genetic drift, a basic driver of evolution by which some genes become more common than others simply by chance. According to Bentley’s models, parents copy the names they hear most often. So it makes sense that names like Tarragon and Hezekia have had trouble catching on.

“No one’s actually looking around and choosing randomly,” said Hahn. But collectively, he said, we make choices that appear as random as inherited traits.

Still, Goldstone thinks there’s something more to it. “Humans are uniquely adept at adopting each other’s innovations,” he said. Which might explain why so many of today’s pre-school rosters are inundated with Emmas, Emilios, Emilianos, Emilias and, of course, Emilys.

And this, Goldstone thinks, is a good thing. “People think imitation is the last resort of dull and dim-witted individuals,” he said, “when actually it’s culturally important.”

So perhaps we shouldn’t be so hard on ourselves for falling in love with names like Noah (No. 15) or Madison (No. 4). We remain creatures of imitation despite our best efforts to be original. And imitation, when applied to big ideas or scientific advances, allows us, as Goldstone put it, “to stand on the shoulders of giants and expand just a little bit more.”

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