Why We Look Like Our Names, According To Psychology

If you automatically know someone you’re just meeting is named Katie, there’s a good reason for that.

This common phenomenon draws attention to the fact that most people’s look tends to “fit” with their names ― and when it doesn’t, we take notice. Making assumptions about others based solely on their names is a near universal practice, and it can have a real effect. Over time, these cultural stereotypes create real associations between a person’s name and their facial appearance, according to new research from the American Psychological Association.

The findings, published online Monday in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, show that people are surprisingly able to correctly match a person’s face with their name. The study also shows that computers can be programmed with algorithms to match up names and faces. 

“We know how belonging to a specific gender can have a strong social structuring impact, but now we know that even our name, which is chosen for us by others and is not biological, can influence the way we look through our interactions with society,” lead study author Dr. Yonat Zwebner, of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Israel, told The Huffington Post. 

For the study, Zwebner and her colleagues recruited hundreds of participants in France and Israel. Researchers showed each volunteer a person’s face and asked them to select what name they would give them from a list of four or five potential names. 

The participants matched the name to the face at a rate better than random chance. They showed up to a 40 percent likelihood of being correct, even when controlling for factors like age, ethnicity and socioeconomic status. The effect was culture-specific, meaning that the people in Israel were able to match the Israeli names and faces but not the French ones, and those in France were better at matching French names. 

In another experiment, the researchers created an algorithm allowing them to train a computer to match names to over 94,000 faces. The computer was significantly more likely than random chance to match the names correctly. 

Researchers believe cultural stereotypes that people attach to different names, by characters we see in movies, TV shows and books, could explain this effect. It’s possible that people subconsciously alter their appearance ― perhaps through a change of hairstyle or makeup ― to match the cultural norms and expectations associated with their name.

“If a name can influence appearance, it can affect many other things, and this research opens an important direction that may suggest how parents should consider better the names they give their children,” Zwebner told HuffPost. “Once people are aware of the possible impact of a name, they will carefully choose a name, and they can choose whether to embrace and fulfill the name stereotype, or defeat it, just like our awareness of gender stereotypes.”

Stereotypes can become a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, and others’ expectations can add up over the years to shape the people we become. This often occur with other types of stereotypes, particularly those pertaining to race and gender, the study’s authors noted. 

“Prior research has shown there are cultural stereotypes attached to names, including how someone should look,” Zwebner said in a statement. “For instance, people are more likely to imagine a person named Bob to have a rounder face than a person named Tim. We believe these stereotypes can, over time, affect people’s facial appearance.”

Stereotyping is particularly rampant in the case of names with strong racial associations. People with traditionally African-American names are more likely to be pegged as “troublemakers” by teachers and less likely to be called in for job interviews. And a 2015 study found that men with names like DeShawn and Jamal are more likely to be perceived as physically large, dangerous and violent than men with more traditionally white-sounding ones. 

For better or for worse, it seems, your name really can shape your fate (or at least your hairstyle). 

Carolyn Gregoire Senior Writer, The Huffington Post

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