Kardashian baby name: the science of how names shape us

Kardashian baby name: some studies have linked unusual names to numerous disadvantages later in life. As for the Kardashian baby name, it remains to be seen.

Alan Diaz/AP
Kardashian baby name: This 2012 photo shows singer Kanye West, left, talking to his girlfriend Kim Kardashian before an NBA basketball game between the Miami Heat and the New York Knicks in Miami. A birth certificate released by the Los Angeles County Dept. of Public Health shows that the couple's daughter North West, was born last Saturday in Los Angeles.

Kim Kardashian, for reasons that are not yet clear, has named her baby North West.

It's an odd choice that's unlikely to much affect Kanye West's and Kardashian's little girl – but, for a child born to non-famous parents, is a name that might critically shape who she grows up to be. Without the gilded Kardashian name to guarantee her success, that non-celebrity girl might struggle to fend off bullies, get hired, and overall surmount other people’s – and eventually her own – low expectations for her future.

Studies have increasingly shown that names are a highly relevant factor is how others perceive us and we perceive ourselves. In 2010, David Figlio of Northwestern University in Illinois analyzed names from millions of birth certificates for the probability that the name belonged to someone of low socioeconomic status – children whose names met those criteria would go to be discriminated against throughout life, he found. Similarly, a 2003 study from The National Bureau of Economic Research found that resumes with White-sounding names receive 50 percent more callbacks for interviews than resumes with African-American-sounding names.

The significance of that research has grown in recent years, as baby names have become increasingly more unusual. In 2010, a British study of some 3,000 parents found that one-in-five of them regretted the name they had selected for their children, in that case often an unusual name or one with a strange spelling. That finding wasn’t surprising to scientists, since a growing crop of studies have linked unusual names to numerous disadvantages in life.

Much of how we perceive the world is unconscious, and our latent biases against particular names are often influential in how we treat people. A 2011 informal survey that combed baby name conversations on online message boards found that the names perceived to be highly trendy are the biggest culprits in jolting those biases and that those names often end up capping our lists of the most hated names.

At the top of the most disliked list in that survey was Nevaeh – “heaven,” spelled backward – which had made it onto the list of most popular baby names in 2003 and surged to the 31st most popular name in 2007. Names with unusual, difficult spellings or gender-bending names were also likely to provoke annoyance.

Research has also suggested that names may influence not just how people are perceived, but also how they behave. Studies have indicated that boys given names traditionally given to girls – like sweet-boy Ashley in “Gone With The Wind”– are more likely to misbehave than male children with more masculine names. Though boys with masculine and feminine names share behavior patterns in elementary school, feminine-named boys tend to show more aggressive behavior come middle school, when the division between the sexes becomes more stark and the teasing more relentless. That’s particularly true if the boy is in class with a girl who shares his name.

Girls given boy names, like Madison and Taylor, might also behave differently from their feminine-named counterparts girls, studies show. But here the causal correlation between name and behavior is less understood. Girls with very feminine names are more likely to choose humanities courses of studies, while girls with masculine-sounding names are more likely to enter the math or sciences fields, though it’s not clear whether or not that’s because the two categories of parents who dubbed them with those either masculine or feminine names might be inclined to raise their daughters to pursue different career goals.

Scientists have also speculated that children with unique names may be more likely than traditionally-named children to grow up to be narcissists, kings of their special-name fiefdom. Still, that may have to do with differences in the values and child-rearing styles of parents who dub their children with un-heard-of names and parents who choose from conventional options, and the weird-name-revolution is too recent to tell.

“It remains to be seen whether having a unique name necessarily leads to narcissism later in life," Jean Twenge, of San Diego State University, told LiveScience. "If that unique name is part of a parent's overall philosophy that their child is special and needs to stand out and that fitting in is a bad thing, then that could lead to those personality traits."

Alternatively, baby North West's name could cue a strong predilection for the American northwest. She might go on to win a few Iditarods and save the snow of the world's north with an answer to global warming. It's not yet clear.

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