Marge: You changed your name without consulting me?
   Homer: That's the way Max Power is, Marge.  Decisive.
      --
The Simpsons

In honor of Will Powers and his theories about self-control, today I would like to talk about my favorite bias ever, the name letter effect. The name letter effect doesn't cause global existential risk or stock market crashes, and it's pretty far down on the list of things to compensate for. But it's a good example of just how insidious biases can be and of the egoism that permeates every level of the mind.

The name letter effect is your subconscious preference for things that sound like your own name. This might be expected to mostly apply to small choices like product brand names, but it's been observed in choices of spouse, city of residence, and even career. Some evidence comes from Pelham et al's Why Susie Sells Seashells By The Seashore:

The paper's first few studies investigate the relationship between a person's name and where they live. People named Phil were found more frequently than usual in Philadelphia, people named Jack in Jacksonville, people named George in Georgia, and so on with p < .001. To eliminate the possibility of the familiarity effect causing parents to subconsciously name their children after their place of residence, further studies were done with surnames and with people who moved later in life, both with the same results. The results held across US and Canadian city names as well as US state names, and were significant both for first name and surname.

In case that wasn't implausible enough, the researchers also looked at association between birth date and city of residence: that is, were people born on 2/02 more likely to live in the town of Two Harbors, and 3/03 babies more likely to live in Three Forks? With p = .003, yes, they are.

The researchers then moved on to career choices. They combed the records of the American Dental Association and the American Bar association looking for people named either Dennis, Denice, Dena, Denver, et cetera, or Lawrence, Larry, Laura, Lauren, et cetera. That is: were there more dentists named Dennis and lawyers named Lawrence than vice versa? Of the various statistical analyses they performed, most said yes, some at < .001 level. Other studies determined that there was a suspicious surplus of geologists named Geoffrey, and that hardware store owners were more likely to have names starting with 'H' compared to roofing store owners, who were more likely to have names starting with 'R'.

Some other miscellaneous findings: people are more likely to donate to Presidential candidates whose names begin with the same letter as their own, people are more likely to marry spouses whose names begin with the same letter as their own, that women are more likely to show name preference effects than men (but why?), and that batters with names beginning in 'K' are more likely than others to strike out (strikeouts being symbolized by a 'K' on the records).

If you have any doubts about the validity of the research, I urge you to read the linked paper. It's a great example of researchers who go above and beyond the call of duty to eliminate as many confounders as possible.

The name letter effect is a great addition to any list of psychological curiosities, but it does have some more solid applications. I often use it as my first example when I'm introducing the idea of subconscious biases to people, because it's clear, surprising, and has major real-world effects. It also tends to shut up people who don't believe there are subconscious influences on decision-making, and who are always willing to find some excuse for why a supposed "bias" could actually be an example of legitimate decision-making.

And it introduces the concept of implicit egoism, the tendency to prefer something just because it's associated with you. It's one possible explanation for the endowment effect, and if it applies to my beliefs as strongly as to my personal details or my property, it's yet another mechanism by which opinions become calcified.

This is also an interesting window onto the complex and important world of self-esteem. Jones, Pelham et al suggest that the name preference effect is either involved in or a byproduct of some sort of self-esteem regulatory system. They find that name preferences are most common among high self-esteem people who have just experienced threats to their self-esteem, almost as if it is a reactive way of saying "No, you really are that great." I think an examination of how different biases interact with self-esteem would be a profitable direction for future research.

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The "Players whose names start with K tend to strikeout more" study, is, I believe, flawed. It's true that K names struck out more historically, but that's because K names (Kyle, Kevin, etc.) are much more common now, when strikeout rates are high, than they were in previous generations, when strikeout rates were low.

See:

http://sabermetricresearch.blogspot.com/2007/11/k-study-for-real_26.html

That's it, I'm naming my first child Utility.

A more useful application of this might be to assign people temporary names during hypothetical role playing to influence how they behave or what lessons they take away. I see this as a subtler version of what happened in the Stanford prison experiment. It would certainly reinforce the process: making someone a guard is one thing, what if they were given the a badge labeled "Lt. Punisher"?

I'm naming my first child Utility.

Okay... just going by the sound of the syllables, it doesn't sound that bad... but I really don't know what that would do to the kid's life, y'know what I'm saying?

I once met a kid named Vanyel. I asked him if he was named after Vanyel Ashkevron. He said "Yes". "Cool," I said, and I meant it, but I was also thinking "What the hell were his parents thinking, naming him after the most famous gay character in all of fantasy?" It's not that it's a bad name for an adult to take for themselves, but it's not really the sort of decision you should make for a child.

My first instinct was to agree with you. My second instinct was to think, "Does that mean I should not name my child after a straight character in fantasy, either?"

And if I should not, that rules out... just about every name that comes from the Bible, doesn't it? ;)

The only Biblical name I had in mind was Ruth. Which, really, would be after a great aunt of mine, but the name comes from a Biblical character perhaps best known for following her mother-in-law around after being widowed. I think "maybe you'll be gay" is probably a less damaging message than "maybe you'll be straight, you'll get married, your husband will die, and then you'll live with your mother-in-law in a foreign country".

I do plan to name a first daughter after a fictional character (not a biblical one; Ruth is the prospective middle name of a second daughter) and I picked one with a mellifluous name, who displays various positive character traits throughout the four-book series in which she appears. However, the fact remains that I'm planning to name a kid after a fantasy princess who gets married in her teens to a king she's known for a very short time and lives happily ever after save some troubles with evil wizards and who then goes on to raise her son alone for sixteen years on account of some trouble with the evil wizards. Is this inauspicious? Does it matter?

Well, going by the study, I guess Utility will end up working for a power company and maybe living in Utah. Vanyel will end up in some job where he drives a van in Vermont.

Or rather, they'll have a slightly increased chance of doing so.

Realistically, people will think Vanyel is a foreign name. Same for Utility, until they see it written out.

EDIT: missing word

There's a kid who will never worry about coming out to his parents, should it be necessary.

Seconding Alicorn. I haven't read the books, but one would imagine that there's more to this character than simply his being gay.

Sure. But it's a central plot point of his stories, nonetheless.

I think that if I would object to someone naming their daughter Utility, then it's fair enough to worry about someone naming their son Vanyel. Or Singularity Smith or Humanist Hugh. Names shouldn't mark children for their parents' politics. Change your own name if you want to make a statement like that.

And if they just really liked Vanyel the character... I'm sorry, but you've got to be realistic about what shows up on Google.

then it's fair enough to worry about someone naming their son Vanyel. Or Singularity Smith or Humanist Hugh.

Invalid analogy. The name under discussion is Vanyel, not Downwithheteronormativity or Queer Quentin.

I'm sorry, but you've got to be realistic about what shows up on Google.

So one should not name one's child Elton, then, as a gay character shows up prominently in the search results?

Names shouldn't mark children for their parents' politics.

Is being okay with homosexuality a matter of politics?

Is being okay with homosexuality a matter of politics?

Sadly, it is now. Maybe in a hundred years, Eliezer will approve of Vanyel's name for children born at that time? Maybe if he'd lived a hundred years ago he'd have criticized people for naming children after characters of other races, or after characters who associated as equals with other races?

I'll say it again: It's not the job of parents to make that choice for children. If you want to grow up and then change your name, great! (We could use with a tradition of that anyway, so that people have a chance to outrun all the Internet posts they made before they were 21 years old.) But the job of parents choosing a name for their child is first and foremost to be concerned strictly about their children, as they will be as children and then as adults. Candy is a great name for a 4-year-old daughter, not so great for a future Board member of a Fortune 500 company. I'm glad my own parents didn't actually name me Luke Skywalker Yudkowsky, for example, or Hen3ry or any of the other cute names they considered. Or even Hari Seldon Yudkowsky - it probably wouldn't be a help to me in my life.

Children and their names shouldn't be pawns in that sort of game - even with the best possible motives and fighting the best possible battles.

It's not the job of parents to make that choice for children.

What choice? You don't seem to be advocating calling children "eldest son" or "second daughter" until they reach the age of majority and accept a name that reflects their adult personalities, so I don't think you mean that parents should not name their children. And every name carries with it a history and a connotation and a sound - even made-up collections of pretty syllables carry the "my parents made up my name, isn't that wacky" connotation. Which ones pass your threshold of not having the wrong connotation or history or sound? It can't be avoided entirely; should we, in your opinion, restrict ourselves to names that are X years old or have X existing popularity or that X% of randomly quizzed people think is a pretty normal name?

Indeed - I'm puzzled about what choice Eliezer meant. Eliezer seems to be advocating not naming your child anything that might be in any way weird, which causes me extreme cognitive dissonance when I consider that he thinks 'Eliezer' is okay.

Eliezer seems to be advocating not naming your child anything that might be in any way weird

I'm not sure avoiding mere weirdness is the point, the point is to avoid any name with associations or permutations that would make one's child easier to tease during childhood, or be taken less seriously during adulthood (e.g. "Candy"), or experience a higher risk of any other negative outcome.

As someone who has experienced childhood bullying, I'm glad that my name didn't give the bullies any additional ammo. If the bully is trying hard enough, they can make fun of just about any name, but some names are easier to make fun of than others.

The child having a positive outcome in the world (meaning the real world of the present, not the world that should be) is more important than parents' exercising their creativity, self-expression, or statement-making, political or otherwise. A child is not a vanity plate.

Tailoring a child's name to the proclivities of cruel and stupid children seems obviously unwarranted to me. The problem isn't the name. The problem is the cruel and stupid children. Tailoring a name to the common biases of normal adults is less obviously so, but since there is no real reason why we shouldn't have a high-powered businesswoman or a politician or whatever named Candy, I'm inclined to think that that's also a bad reason. Of course, I'm in favor of supplying middle names that are pretty run-of-the-mill for emergency backup; I know several people who go by their middle names, as a cheaper and simpler alternative to actually going through with a name change. If Candy doesn't like being Candy, she can grow up and call herself C. Eleanor or something.

There are so many parenting choices that would be ruled out by a strategy of denying bullies ammunition that it doesn't seem like a practical priority, even if it were one I agreed with. Should I choose a white spouse (or adopt white children), so my kids will be white and unlikely to be the target of race-based bullying? Should I wait until I'm willing and able to supply my offspring with expensive designer clothes, lest they otherwise be subject to the sneers of the better-dressed? Should I grit my teeth and raise my children Episcopalian so they have a nice mainstream inoffensive belief system that people are unlikely to tease them about? Or, for more easily implemented choices - should I feed them meat, in case the carnivore children next door think tofu is silly? Should I discourage them from acting well-informed in public because knowledge is often mocked? Should I get a TV and have it babysit them so they'll enter the world with an arsenal of popular culture trivia?

Data point: I have a very ordinary name. It's boring. I don't hate it enough to change it, but I wish my parents had named me something cooler.

Data point: I'm glad to have a "dull" first name (Paul). To me, it means that I've been handed a blank slate on which to write who I am, rather than finding that my parents have pre-filled it for me. And it's something my parents did very much on purpose.

The problem isn't the name. The problem is the cruel and stupid children.

Do you intend to rid the world of cruel and stupid children? If not, then this is the wrong protest for a parent to make.

Should I wait until I'm willing and able to supply my offspring with expensive designer clothes

You do realize what I think I ought to do before the world is safe enough for my children... oh, never mind.

Do you intend to rid the world of cruel and stupid children?

No, I intend to homeschool and to encourage my offspring not to waste their time on cruel and stupid people in general.

blink

If indeed those parents were homeschooling their child then I'd probably withdraw 88% of my objection to that particular name.

That was my answer too. Well, s/homeschool/unschool/ ?

Well said. Coolness is to be celebrated. And your comment about having white children is especially well-taken given Eliezer's comment about growing up to be president. Presumably, (at least before this year) one would be well-advised to avoid having anything but a white child if you want to leave that option open.

Also, you didn't mention it, but obviously none of those things will stop kids from being bullied. All you need in order to be punched in the face is a face. (And kids without faces will likely be bullied too)

I really don't get the Candy thing, but maybe that's because I've only ever known older women named Candy.

Also, you didn't mention it, but obviously none of those things will stop kids from being bullied.

I didn't mention it because that doesn't seem to be HughRistik's point; it seemed like he was focusing on reducing bullying (plausible) rather than on eliminating it (implausible).

Tailoring a child's name to the proclivities of cruel and stupid children seems obviously unwarranted to me. The problem isn't the name. The problem is the cruel and stupid children.

Why does it seem so unwarranted? The problem is with the cruel and stupid children, yes, but they are still a factor in how one's children are treated. Don't parents still have some sort of responsibility to protect their children from threats, even ones that shouldn't exist in an ideal world?

I agree with Eliezer that in your case, home-schooling will remove a lot of the problem.

There are so many parenting choices that would be ruled out by a strategy of denying bullies ammunition that it doesn't seem like a practical priority, even if it were one I agreed with.

I agree that parents cannot always completely deny bullies ammunition, but they should avoid granting bullies ammunition that doesn't require any tangible sacrifice on their part.

All parenting choices are not created equal. Some parenting choices, like many of the examples you give, have some real rationale behind them that outweighs their possible negative impact on the child. Parents have valid interests in marrying the person they love, in raising their children to share their religion and diet, and in choosing their children's clothes and TV time. These concerns justify increasing the risk of their children getting teased, while the parents' mere self-expression does not.

Data point: I have a very ordinary name. It's boring. I don't hate it enough to change it, but I wish my parents had named me something cooler.

It's much better to having a boring name than to get teased because your parents got a little too creative. And I'm not talking about parents avoiding any kind of cool names, I'm just advocating avoiding names that will increase the chances of their kids getting teased.

Also, I like ciphergoth's comment about the benefits of giving children a name that functions as a blank slate for their identities, rather than saddle the kid with the parents' self-expression that the kid might grow up to dislike.

Why does it seem so unwarranted?...Don't parents still have some sort of responsibility to protect their children from threats, even ones that shouldn't exist in an ideal world?

Yes, parents have that responsibility. However, I don't consider encouraging or enforcing conformity to be the best way to protect children from the threat of bullying, any more than I consider it the best way to protect against assorted adult social ills like prejudice in its myriad forms. My first choice, as I noted elsewhere, is to control the setting so the threat is all but obviated. If that option weren't available to me (if I'd already had kids and then suffered financial disaster such that I could not educate them at home, having to work instead), I'd prefer consulting authorities (teachers, school administrators, other parents) to contain the threat in question, and sending my kid to jujitsu class if the threat were physical.

Names are important. I don't want to make a decision that important because I am afraid of the behavior of cruel and stupid children. I don't want my kid to ask "Mom, why did you name me Lisa Mary? There are six other Lisas on our street and one of them has the middle name Mary too!" and have to answer "well, I was afraid that if I called you Cimorene Joyce like I wanted to, the six other Lisas on the street would make catty remarks to you even more than they already do because you're an atheist vegetarian who needs glasses and prefers books to television and doesn't go around dressed in clothes that feature [insert next decade's pop culture celebrity]. Never mind that as Cimorene Joyce you could have gone by Joyce or C.J. or by, heck, Lisa if that struck your fancy."

they should avoid granting bullies ammunition that doesn't require any tangible sacrifice on their part.

Right, because naming my kid Lisa wouldn't pick my pocket or break my leg, it's not a significant sacrifice? A name that I will use many times a day and that everyone will know I picked shouldn't have to be one I like?

It's much better to having a boring name than to get teased because your parents got a little too creative. And I'm not talking about parents avoiding any kind of cool names, I'm just advocating avoiding names that will increase the chances of their kids getting teased.

I do not share your value ordering.

Also, I can think of about six names that seem impossible to tease, and I'm sure with a little work, I could come up with schoolyard chants mocking those six names too.

To justify putting a child at increased risk of being teased or bullied, the reason had better be pretty damn good. I don't see the parents' name preferences, or the desire to flout prejudice with a child's name, as cutting it. Let's start with the issue of parents' preferences:

Names are important. I don't want to make a decision that important because I am afraid of the behavior of cruel and stupid children. [...] A name that I will use many times a day and that everyone will know I picked shouldn't have to be one I like?

I fully agree that names are important to parents and that parents have a valid interest in choosing names for their children that they like.

Yet we can't just look at the parents' interests. What about the kid's interests? Remember, we are talking about potentially lasting psychological trauma. Even if we are only talking about a 5-10% difference in teasing and bullying, why would a parent want to make things any worse for their children just to satisfy their own creativity and self-expression? That sounds very selfish on the parent's part.

Btw, I don't see a problem with the name "Cimorene." I'm pretty sure I haven't argued for limiting childrens' names to the most generic, like "Lisa." As I've said, I'm not advocating against cool names or unusual names, I'm advocating against names with associations and permutations that lead to increased teasing. As you observe, it is possible make fun of any name, given enough thought; yet as I've also already pointed out, some names are easier to make fun of than others. Not all names are so vulnerable to teasing that we should just throw up our hands and treat them all as equally risky for children.

If parents really want to exercise their creativity, they should think up cool names that don't have obviously teaseable associations. Cimorene is fine; Vanyel is not. Would it really hurt parents to call their son "Vance" instead of "Vanyel" as much as it could potentially hurt the kid to be called Vanyel if one of his classmates discovers the reference? Remember, we are talking about the receiving homophobic slurs for years on end, which might have otherwise been avoided. From a utilitarian perspective, I don't think the math adds up. Maybe you think it does.

Next, let's examine the issue of conformity:

However, I don't consider encouraging or enforcing conformity to be the best way to protect children from the threat of bullying, any more than I consider it the best way to protect against assorted adult social ills like prejudice in its myriad forms.

Conforming when choosing a name isn't the same thing as "encouraging" or "enforcing" conformity. Unless you think that it encourages conformity by example?

I generally don't support catering to conformity and prejudice, in a vacuum. Yet in this case, we have an additional concern: the child's welfare. Does the cost the parents bear by conforming (or to others who might follow their example) really justify putting their child at an elevated risk of psychological harm? If the point is to avoid teaching the child to conform, then can't the parents teach this lesson more directly?

Certainly the choice of a child's name isn't the "best" way of protecting a child from bullying; nobody is saying that it is. But it certainly helps. Choice of a child's name isn't the best way to fight conformity and prejudice, either. Parents shouldn't be sticking their children any farther out in the front lines of culture wars than necessary. If parents want to fight prejudice and teach their kids the virtues of opposing it, then they should take the kids to rallies. Parents can use kids to hold placards, but parents shouldn't use a kid's name as a placard.

You suggest other ways of protecting children. Great idea in principle, but homeschooling is the only idea you've suggested that I think will work in practice.

If that option weren't available to me (if I'd already had kids and then suffered financial disaster such that I could not educate them at home, having to work instead), I'd prefer consulting authorities (teachers, school administrators, other parents) to contain the threat in question, and sending my kid to jujitsu class if the threat were physical.

When I read this, I really have to wonder whether you've experienced any kind of extensive bullying. I could be wrong, but it doesn't sound like you know the ropes.

  1. There is a limit to what the authorities can and will do. Authorities can verbally rebuke bullies or talk to their parents, but this is not guaranteed to result in a change lasting more than a few days/weeks. Authorities can't supervise everything all the time. There is plenty of psychological damage that bullies can do with chronic maltreament even if no isolated incident is enough to get them suspended or expelled. Verbal abuse especially is hard to monitor and discipline.

  2. You can't assume that the child will necessarily speak up about everything. If the child is used to the way they are being treated, they might not realize that they deserve better.

  3. As for the physical side, there is only so much that martial arts can do when there is big differences in size and aggressiveness between children. Jujitsu might help with grappling, but it's not so good against shoving and tripping, especially when they come from behind or in groups. A gentle kid who is not a natural athlete is going to get owned by bigger, aggressive bullies who hit puberty earlier, regardless of training. Furthermore, what if the kid doesn't want to do martial arts?

The only thing I've seen make serious bullies completely stop is (a) the bully getting older and maturing, or (b) the bully finding a juicier target. Probably the best way to protect a kid is to make sure he or she doesn't get targeted in the first place; consequently, picking a name that won't instead draw the radar of every bully in the school seems like a good idea. Because once the kid gets in the sights of serious and savvy bullies, there is not much that you or the authorities can do to completely stop the bullies from having their fun and slowly sucking the life out of your kid, every day, for years on end, short of waiting for the bullies to get tired of your kid, or taking your kid out of that situation.

I do not share your value ordering.

I see, but I don't think your value ordering is based on the big picture taking into account the nature of bullying, perhaps because you don't have extensive experience with it (though maybe you do). I completely agree with valuing parents' name preferences and avoiding caving in to conformity, but I don't see a basis to believe that these concerns justify making one's child a bigger target for bullies. Sure, the kid could grow up and love their name and never get seriously bullied, but he or she could also get targeted by bullies early and get hit harder. Even if this higher variance of outcome from a radical name is not associated with a lower mean (it probably is), parents should be risk-averse towards outcome distributions that extend into the range of lasting psychological and social damage.

Parents conforming to prejudice and stowing their creative, radical, avante garde names for their children just doesn't hurt them, society, nor their children as much as increased bullying and teasing could hurt the children. I don't see the utilitarian math working out, unless the parents' name preferences are put above the children's welfare, the danger of bullying is underestimated, the differences in fertility to bullies of different names is underestimated, or the ability of children, parents and authorities to deal with bullying is overestimated.

And it bears repeating again: I am not against all cool, unusual, or even avant-garde names. I am not merely advocating generic names. I am arguing against names that will put children at an increased risk of being bullied or otherwise mistreated or not taken seriously.

To justify putting a child at increased risk of being teased or bullied, the reason had better be pretty damn good.

I would revise this statement if I were you, to something like "to justify putting a child at increased risk of being teased or bullied, the reason had better be commensurate with the risk increase in question". For example, "I was in a hurry" isn't a "pretty damn good" reason to increase the odds of teasing/bullying for one's child, but it might - occasionally, anyway - be an adequate reason for not noticing that one's child has her shirt on backwards as she leaves the house in the morning.

What about the kid's interests?

Why are you assuming a kid - moreover, in particular, a kid of mine - wouldn't share my attitude about names, instead of yours, and agree with me about where to draw the line and how to make the tradeoff?

Cimorene is fine; Vanyel is not.

Why? Because you had already heard of the name "Vanyel" and knew how to expect it to be teased, whereas (I'm guessing) you've never read the Enchanted Forest Chronicles? I hadn't heard of Vanyel before; it just sounded like a cool name to me, and I had to look it up when Eliezer indicated it had baggage attached. What are the odds that the average elementary school kid who would be inclined to use homophobic slurs in the first place has read Vanyel's books?

From a utilitarian perspective, I don't think the math adds up. Maybe you think it does.

I'm not a utilitarian. Or even a consequentialist.

Conforming when choosing a name isn't the same thing as "encouraging" or "enforcing" conformity. Unless you think that it encourages conformity by example?

I think it falls under the "enforcement" category pretty starkly. It's not unassailable enforcement - middle names and nicknames and, later, name changes are available - but whatever your parents name you is what you're going to be called, by everybody, all the time, at least until you're old enough and independent enough to divorce yourself from what's written on your birth certificate. And if they call you Lisa, they're making you - in a pretty significant way - like all the people who are already named Lisa, and declaring their allegiance (or at least shared preferences) with all the other people who have named children Lisa.

If the point is to avoid teaching the child to conform, then can't the parents teach this lesson more directly?

Children are notoriously inclined to obey example over instruction. I have very low confidence that quietly stifling various forms of self-expression while paying lip service to non-conformity will result in a cheerfully nonconformist child.

Parents shouldn't be sticking their children any farther out in the front lines of culture wars than necessary.

You have yet to address my comparison with selecting the race of children. If I wind up with a black or Asian or Hispanic or whatever spouse, my kids will be sorta brownish. This will inevitably embroil them in "culture wars"; it's a privilege of whites and whites alone to avoid that mess (in the United States).

When I read this, I really have to wonder whether you've experienced any kind of extensive bullying.

I have never been physically attacked. However, up until high school (and, for some percentage of the cases, during high school), I generally found the authorities responsive to my various complaints about the non-assault behavior of others. It is possible that this has something to do with my being female and the pet of various school counselors as I grew up, so I shouldn't necessarily expect it to extend to my children.

You can't assume that the child will necessarily speak up about everything. If the child is used to the way they are being treated, they might not realize that they deserve better.

I'm not sure what you're actually suggesting here, but it sounds like you think my children will either be exposed to bullying all over the place, perhaps including at home, and come to think of it as the normal behavior of others, or they won't be able to distinguish between kind and bullying behavior at all. While I suppose you have no reason to rule out the first and neither of us have reason to rule out the second, they don't seem likely enough to plan for.

I am arguing against names that will put children at an increased risk of being bullied or otherwise mistreated or not taken seriously.

How much of an increase, since names exist on a continuum of teasing likelihood? Cimorene Joyce is more likely to be teased about her name than Lisa Mary.

To add another facet to the discussion, how do you feel about last name choices? Perhaps you don't feel that surnames should be conjured up from scratch, but it's certainly not out of the question for me and my future spouse to choose between my and the spouse's preexisting names for the kids. If the choices were between something normal and dull, like Johnson, and something ripe for juvenile mockery, like Cox, would you hold that I'm (in utilitarian fashion) obliged to put "Johnson" on the kids' birth certificates?

Why are you assuming a kid - moreover, in particular, a kid of mine - wouldn't share my attitude about names, instead of yours, and agree with me about where to draw the line and how to make the tradeoff?

My previous post acknowledges that a child could grow up and love the radical name they are given. And I already tried to address your point above with what I was saying about radical names causing a higher variance of outcome, meaning higher chances of positive results and higher chances of negative results. I'm just not much of a fan of high-risk, high-reward strategies in the domain of parenting.

What are the odds that the average elementary school kid who would be inclined to use homophobic slurs in the first place has read Vanyel's books?

Don't forget that elementary school children have older siblings, and that many schools are K-8. While the chances probably aren't very high, the consequences for the kid will be very high if someone finds out. Why play Russian Roulette with a child's social development?

I think it falls under the "enforcement" category pretty starkly. It's not unassailable enforcement - middle names and nicknames and, later, name changes are available - but whatever your parents name you is what you're going to be called

Very well, I concede this point. I still see the costs of additional exposure to bullying to outweigh the cost of this sort of enforcement. Bullies will enforce a lot more than this on a kid who gets in their sights.

Children are notoriously inclined to obey example over instruction. I have very low confidence that quietly stifling various forms of self-expression while paying lip service to non-conformity will result in a cheerfully nonconformist child.

I agree that kids learn by example, but choice in the child's name is merely one form of the parents' self-expression. I'm sure there are plenty of other ways that parents can set nonconformist examples. See my previous comment about taking kids to rallies.

You have yet to address my comparison with selecting the race of children. If I wind up with a black or Asian or Hispanic or whatever spouse, my kids will be sorta brownish. This will inevitably embroil them in "culture wars"; it's a privilege of whites and whites alone to avoid that mess (in the United States).

On the contrary, I did address this comparison when I said "Parents have valid interests in marrying the person they love, in raising their children to share their religion and diet, and in choosing their children's clothes and TV time. These concerns justify increasing the risk of their children getting teased, while the parents' mere self-expression does not."

However, up until high school (and, for some percentage of the cases, during high school), I generally found the authorities responsive to my various complaints about the non-assault behavior of others. It is possible that this has something to do with my being female and the pet of various school counselors as I grew up, so I shouldn't necessarily expect it to extend to my children.

I think you are correct to be hesitant in expecting that authorities would easily deal with bullying towards a child of yours. In my case, authorities were able to stop the more physical bullying, but they were able to stop the verbal aspect for any length of time.

I'm not sure what you're actually suggesting here, but it sounds like you think my children will either be exposed to bullying all over the place, perhaps including at home, and come to think of it as the normal behavior of others, or they won't be able to distinguish between kind and bullying behavior at all. While I suppose you have no reason to rule out the first and neither of us have reason to rule out the second, they don't seem likely enough to plan for.

I don't think I suggested that I think your children would be exposed to bullying in the home, nor all over the place. To clarify, I am suggesting that if a child is getting bullied somewhere, it's not guaranteed that the child will speak up about it to their parents or to the authorities. There are many possible reasons: not wanting to make trouble, not wanting to be a tattle-tale, fear of reprisal, not wanting to look weak, speaking up in the past changed nothing, or being accustomed to the treatment.

It is not at all uncommon for abuse victims to suffer in silence. How likely this would be for a child of yours would depend mainly on the nature and degree of bullying, and the child's personality. Even though the majority of children do not receive this treatment, putting a child at a greater risk of it, or exacerbating that treatment if it is already happening, is sufficiently bad that it should be taken seriously. Just because there is a low chance of a certain bad outcome, that doesn't mean that we shouldn't try to avoid that outcome if the badness is bad enough (see my Russian Roulette analogy above). In your case, if you had children with Asperger's syndrome or Aspie traits, you would probably want to do as much as possible to protect them from bullying (which might be why you are considering homeschooling).

Again, since you haven't experienced extensive bullying, and you don't understand the potential difficulties with speaking up, you seem to be underestimating how bad bullying can get and how difficult it can be for both the authorities and the person involved to deal with it. I think if you had a more accurate picture of the risks involved, and how big the stakes are, parent's name desires would start to shrink in importance relative to protecting children from those risks (which may not be common, but which are severe), and you would be a bit more hesitant towards parents exposing their children to a greater risk of bullying.

How much of an increase, since names exist on a continuum of teasing likelihood? Cimorene Joyce is more likely to be teased about her name than Lisa Mary.

Continuum, yes, but this continuum doesn't increase linearly. There are both quantitative and qualitative differences between the teasing that certain types of names may inspire. There is a massive different between the amount and type of teasing that a name like Cimorene would inspire, as opposed to Vanyel, because the latter will cause gay-baiting if its meaning is discovered. I'm not confident that merely unusual names taken from fantasy novels will lead to enough additional teasing to worry about. It's mainly names with associations or permutations that can be used in a demeaning way that I think parents should be cautious about. Vanyel associates a child with homosexuality, which is truly a scarlet letter for a young boy.

As names increase in teasibility, or types of teasibiity, I'm not sure exactly where parents should become worried, but some names definitely do cross that line, such as ones that inspire gay-baiting.

To add another facet to the discussion, how do you feel about last name choices? Perhaps you don't feel that surnames should be conjured up from scratch, but it's certainly not out of the question for me and my future spouse to choose between my and the spouse's preexisting names for the kids. If the choices were between something normal and dull, like Johnson, and something ripe for juvenile mockery, like Cox, would you hold that I'm (in utilitarian fashion) obliged to put "Johnson" on the kids' birth certificates?

First, I haven't thought this through to point where I'm saying that parents are "obliged" to do anything. What I'm advocating is that when thinking up a name for their child, they should consider the consequences of that name, and the probability, goodness, and badness of those potential consequences. I suggest that if parents come up with a name, they think about whether that name might increase their child's exposure to bullying and teasing (which is potentially difficult to avoid, and difficult to stop once it starts), and if so, they ask themselves whether their need for self-expression and belief that the child will like that name really justifies putting their child at an additional risk.

Last names are a slightly different case, because changing them usually has additional consequences that will have to be weighed. If the situation is choosing between the last names of two spouses for the child, then the parents should indeed consider the impact of last names on the child. In this case, I do think that Johnson is safer than Cox.

Btw, is there any (first) name for a child that you would think is morally questionable for parents to stick on a child, or at least inadvisable? For instance, would you see a problem with parents naming a boy GayWussyPoopooBaby? If so, why?

I agree that kids learn by example, but choice in the child's name is merely one form of the parents' self-expression.

Agreed - but is the message supposed to be "don't conform if you don't want to", or "don't conform unless not conforming is scary"?

You have yet to address my comparison with selecting the race of children. If I wind up with a black or Asian or Hispanic or whatever spouse, my kids will be sorta brownish. This will inevitably embroil them in "culture wars"; it's a privilege of whites and whites alone to avoid that mess (in the United States).

On the contrary, I did address this comparison when I said "Parents have valid interests in marrying the person they love, in raising their children to share their religion and diet, and in choosing their children's clothes and TV time. These concerns justify increasing the risk of their children getting teased, while the parents' mere self-expression does not."

You have not fully addressed this point at all! I can select the race of my spouse and therefore the race of my children without having to give up the chance to marry someone I love (given that I am not presently in love with anyone) simply by limiting my dating pool. It's pretty easy to tell by looking whether or not the potential children of me and some random guy would look white or not. I could simply not approach, or reject approaches from, anyone for whom the answer is "not". This might slow me down, but I'm pretty confident I will eventually find a spouse whether I do this or not. Kindly say whether or not you think, given that I eventually want children that are biologically mine and a future spouse's, and given that I will select the spouse from a dating pool I can restrict as I see fit based on any criteria I choose, that I should restrict said dating pool on the basis of race so my children will not be minorities.

While we are on the subject of uncomfortable comparisons, the fact that I want biological children that are mine and a spouse's limits my dating pool to men and transsexual women who had the foresight to visit a sperm bank. I have a transwoman ex-girlfriend who has expressed an interest in getting back together with me after we are out of school and more geographically convenient to each other; should I nix that idea because I can probably find a cisgendered male and if I do, my kids won't have two mommies?

Btw, is there any (first) name for a child that you would think is morally questionable for parents to stick on a child, or at least inadvisable? For instance, would you see a problem with parents naming a boy GayWussyPoopooBaby? If so, why?

Yes, there are some such first names. The one you propose is among them. This isn't because some kid named GayWussyPoopooBaby would be teased so much as because it indicates a flagrantly disrespectful attitude on the part of the parents towards their own child. If I thought that Vanyel's parents were homophobes and meant the name as a subtle dig at their offspring, I would object. By the same token, if "GayWussyPoopooBaby" meant something complimentary in a foreign language and that was genuinely the reasoning behind the name, I'd probably advise the parents to transliterate it differently ("Geiwusipoupoubebbi"?), and make sure they were informed of its significance in English nonetheless, but after that point I think it would be their choice.

You have not fully addressed this point at all! I can select the race of my spouse and therefore the race of my children without having to give up the chance to marry someone I love (given that I am not presently in love with anyone) simply by limiting my dating pool.

I think I have, if you read that quote of mine again. I said "Parents have valid interests in marrying the person they love," not "Parents have valid interests in marrying a person they love." I do not consider potential spouses to be completely interchangeable. Consequently, parents can have a valid interest in marrying the particular person they are in love in with, even if that person is of a demographic that would lead their child to have a harder time with teasing.

Kindly say whether or not you think, given that I eventually want children that are biologically mine and a future spouse's, and given that I will select the spouse from a dating pool I can restrict as I see fit based on any criteria I choose, that I should restrict said dating pool on the basis of race so my children will not be minorities.

No, because you have a valid interest in dating from an unrestricted pool, and not having your dating slowed down by excluding partners based on qualities that are arbitrary to your compatibility. Same principle with having kids with your ex-girlfriend: if she really is your optimal partner choice in your view, then you have a valid interest in having kids with her, even though kids with other partners would have safer childhoods.

Do you really think that a parent's choice of names for their child carries the same importance as the parent's unrestricted partner choice? I don't, and I would be surprised if you do. In my view, a parent's choice of a particular partner they consider optimal enough to have kids with, and a child's interest in not being put at extra risk of bullying, are both on a higher level of importance than a parent's choice of a creative name for the child.

By the same token, if "GayWussyPoopooBaby" meant something complimentary in a foreign language and that was genuinely the reasoning behind the name, I'd probably advise the parents to transliterate it differently ("Geiwusipoupoubebbi"?), and make sure they were informed of its significance in English nonetheless, but after that point I think it would be their choice.

I think it would be their choice, too. My question for you is whether there are names that you would have a moral problem with, or that you would think are inadvisable. If parents from a foreign country named their boy Geiwusipoupoubebbi (love your transliteration, btw!), fully knowing how it sounds in English, would you really have no problem with that, considering that the name alone is enough to make the kid's life hell at school from bullying, possibly causing social trauma and depression? Would you have advised against giving that name to the kid if the parents asked your opinion when considering names?

This isn't because some kid named GayWussyPoopooBaby would be teased so much as because it indicates a flagrantly disrespectful attitude on the part of the parents towards their own child.

But you wouldn't consider the resulting teasing to lead to moral problems in giving that name? Why not?

I'm still trying to make sense of your justification of subjecting children to unnecessary abuse to satisfy the whims of the parents because the direct agents of the abuse are acting immorally (though predictably). If I'm mischaracterizing your justification, then please clarify what it is.

As far as I can tell, either you think that predictably subjecting a child to abuse at the hands of an immorally-acting agent is:

  1. Not wrong, because all the injustice is due to the bullying agent.
  2. Wrong, but outweighed by the parent's interests in choosing a name they like for their children, flouting convention, etc...

Or you have some other position that is either unarticulated or non-obvious to me. Which is it?

I think I have, if you read that quote of mine again. I said "Parents have valid interests in marrying the person they love," not "Parents have valid interests in marrying a person they love." I do not consider potential spouses to be completely interchangeable. Consequently, parents can have a valid interest in marrying the particular person they are in love in with, even if that person is of a demographic that would lead their child to have a harder time with teasing... No, because you have a valid interest in dating from an unrestricted pool, and not having your dating slowed down by excluding partners based on qualities that are arbitrary to your compatibility. Same principle with having kids with your ex-girlfriend: if she really is your optimal partner choice in your view, then you have a valid interest in having kids with her, even though kids with other partners would have safer childhoods.

You're still evading the question. In order to find out whether any given prospective partner is someone I want to marry, I have to invest a lot of time in them. I can spend my twenties finding and investing time in, say, half a dozen people who meet my minimum initial standards whether or not those standards include "white male", and I don't have such a discerning nose for mate quality that I think excluding that criterion would let me be pickier about something important and have better odds of finding a really optimal spouse. Are you trying to say that you believe in soulmates or something equally freaky, such that restricting my dating pool one iota more than strikes my selfish whim might cost me my One True Love™? It certainly sounds like it - if you think that my investing time in the pursuit of Sorta Brownish Person A over White Person B is that important that you'll give me a green light to do so, and marry A if all goes well, even though I'll wind up with a Sorta Brownish Kid who might be the target of racism throughout his or her life, surely it must be profoundly important on the order of soulmate-hood for A. If that's the case, then you're outright rejecting my premise that I could find a satisfactory spouse given certain dating pool restrictions (e.g. if I restricted the pool to men or whites or both). I think I have an awfully high chance of winding up with a white male even if I don't narrow my dating pool at all, just because non-whites are called "minorities" for a reason and the same is true of lesbian/bisexual transwomen. It doesn't seem to me that I'd be giving up anything except my commitment to various non-consequentialist principles I care about by deliberately upping that chance to a near-certainty. Since "various non-consequentialist principles I care about" is exactly why I'd like to defend Vanyel's parents and the other parents of kids with unusual names, I want you to distinguish the two situations without resorting to the apparently magical words "valid interest in".

If parents from a foreign country named their boy Geiwusipoupoubebbi (love your transliteration, btw!), fully knowing how it sounds in English, would you really have no problem with that, considering that the name alone is enough to make the kid's life hell at school from bullying, possibly causing social trauma and depression? Would you have advised against giving that name to the kid if the parents asked your opinion when considering names?

I'd probably advise against it on aesthetic grounds, since I don't think it sounds very nice, but not on the grounds you suggest. I'd probably call the child Wu (or a translation of whatever complimentary thing "Geiwusipoupoubebbi" means) for short and hope it stuck. I might advise homeschooling a little more enthusiastically with those parents than with others.

But you wouldn't consider the resulting teasing to lead to moral problems in giving that name? Why not?

Because I'm not a consequentialist? The basics of my (unfinished, don't ask for too many details) ethical account are that something is wrong if it a) violates a right of a person or b) destroys something without an adequate reason. Naming a kid Geiwusipoupoubebbi, without using that name to signify an attitude of disrespect, does not seem to me to violate a right (although it may increase the odds of Wu being a victim of rights violations later) and it does not appear to destroy anything, with or without an adequate reason.

I'm still trying to make sense of your justification of subjecting children to unnecessary abuse to satisfy the whims of the parents because the direct agents of the abuse are acting immorally (though predictably).

The abuse is not certain. The abuse isn't even genuinely evitable by the parents, just scalable on a limited basis. Wu and his imaginary alternate universe version Ted could both be teased exactly the same amount, if, say, Wu benefits from the expectations others have of people named Wu and is therefore better at math than Ted and can tutor a sixth-grader and obtain the sixth-grader's protection. Or if his closer connection to his parents' cultural heritage lets him give a really cool presentation at the third grade international festival. Or if having a wacky name gives him a convenient icebreaker throughout his life and he can win friends and influence people. Could Wu also hate his name and suffer for it? Sure. I acknowledge the possibility. But it's not an unbroken causal connection the way you seem to think it is.

Alicorn said:

You're still evading the question. In order to find out whether any given prospective partner is someone I want to marry, I have to invest a lot of time in them.

Yes, but surely not all your prospective partners always look equally promising. If the most promising person around happens to non-white, then go ahead and date them. Who knows how long it might take to find someone as equally promising?

Are you trying to say that you believe in soulmates or something equally freaky, such that restricting my dating pool one iota more than strikes my selfish whim might cost me my One True Love™? It certainly sounds like it - if you think that my investing time in the pursuit of Sorta Brownish Person A over White Person B is that important that you'll give me a green light to do so, and marry A if all goes well, even though I'll wind up with a Sorta Brownish Kid who might be the target of racism throughout his or her life, surely it must be profoundly important on the order of soulmate-hood for A.

Yes, if you think Person A is potentially a good match, then I will give you a green light to date him (or her). This green light does not entail a belief in soul-mate-hood, only a belief that Person A is more promising match, and an acknowledgment that a non-white person might end up being a better match than any eligible white partners you might meet in a convenient time window. Even if you didn't know either very well, I consider it rather unlikely that you would feel exactly the same way about both of them, if you were meeting them at the same time. All else being equal, potential parents probably should choose potential partners with traits that are more likely to result in positive outcomes for the children, and less likely to result in negative outcomes. Yet all is is rarely equal.

If that's the case, then you're outright rejecting my premise that I could find a satisfactory spouse given certain dating pool restrictions (e.g. if I restricted the pool to men or whites or both).

I am not rejecting your premise that you could find a "satisfactory" spouse given certain dating pool restrictions. But surely you want a spouse that is more than merely satisfactory. While perhaps not likely, it is plausible that out of the potential satisfactory mates that you might meet during your lifetime, some of the best matches for you might be non-white. Even if you are surrounded by eligible white bachelors, you still could fall in love with a non-white person or meet a non-white person who seems like a better dating prospect, unless you plan on self-segregating yourself. Even if you know that you could eventually find a highly satisfactory partner of any race, people do not have infinite time and energy.

Since you cannot rule out the possibility that, out of the potential partners you can possibly explore in your life time, a non-white person might be head-and-shoulders a better match, you should not categorically avoid partners of a particular minority group in my view. Am I really such a romantic?

Since "various non-consequentialist principles I care about" is exactly why I'd like to defend Vanyel's parents and the other parents of kids with unusual names, I want you to distinguish the two situations without resorting to the apparently magical words "valid interest in".

What distinguishes choosing a minority partner from choosing an exotic name for a child is that the former is much more influential in a parent's psychological health and happiness over the long term.

  1. A child's name is a large factor in how he or she is treated that can influence the children's psychological health and happiness over a long period of time
  2. A parent's partner choice (and time spent searching for a partner) is also a large factor in the parent's psychological health and happiness over a long period of time (and that of the child)
  3. A parent's choice of an exotic name for a child is not a large factor in the parent's psychological health or happiness over a long period of time

One of these things is not like the others.

Anyway, I think the whole discussion of partner choice is an unnecessary tangent in this discussion. If you agree that parents have a responsibility to protect children who are already born from unnecessary risks, then I think we can move on.

I'd probably advise against it on aesthetic grounds, since I don't think it sounds very nice, but not on the grounds you suggest. I'd probably call the child Wu (or a translation of whatever complimentary thing "Geiwusipoupoubebbi" means) for short and hope it stuck.

Calling the child "Wu" would be changing the example.

I might advise homeschooling a little more enthusiastically with those parents than with others.

Why? You don't have a problem with the parents giving the child a name that would almost certainly make him a target of bullying. If you wouldn't advise giving a less-risky name, why would you advise sending the child to a less-risky school environment?

Because I'm not a consequentialist? The basics of my (unfinished, don't ask for too many details) ethical account are that something is wrong if it a) violates a right of a person or b) destroys something without an adequate reason.

Sounds good to me, so far...

Naming a kid Geiwusipoupoubebbi, without using that name to signify an attitude of disrespect, does not seem to me to violate a right (although it may increase the odds of Wu being a victim of rights violations later)

... and you're fine with that? You don't have a problem with knowingly setting someone up for the possibility of future rights violations, when this is easily avoidable?

and it does not appear to destroy anything, with or without an adequate reason.

... except poor Geiwusipoupoubebbi's self-esteem and mental health?

The abuse is not certain.

No guesses about the future are certain. Do they have to be, for us to entertain concern?

Wu and his imaginary alternate universe version Ted could both be teased exactly the same amount, if, say, Wu benefits from the expectations others have of people named Wu and is therefore better at math than Ted and can tutor a sixth-grader and obtain the sixth-grader's protection.

This is wishful thinking, even if we were in the scenario where the kid gets his name shortened, which we are not.

Or if his closer connection to his parents' cultural heritage lets him give a really cool presentation at the third grade international festival. Or if having a wacky name gives him a convenient icebreaker throughout his life and he can win friends and influence people.

Wishful thinking...

Could Wu also hate his name and suffer for it? Sure. I acknowledge the possibility. But it's not an unbroken causal connection the way you seem to think it is.

I don't think that parents naming a kid Geiwusipoupoubebbi creates an "unbroken causal connection" to being bullied. Above, I do acknowledge uncertainty when I talked about the teasing his name "may" inspire, and when I likened parents giving a name like that to playing Russian Roulette with their kids (a game of chance). All I argue is that the bullying is highly probable, and that if it happens, it can get really, really bad.

(I will argue that the event where the kid hates his exotic name and gets bullied is much, much worse that the benefits to the kid and the parents if the kid likes his name and doesn't get bullied. Cool name vs. social rejection and trauma? That's not a contest. Furthermore, if the kid decides that his mundane name is boring, he can always adopt a spicier nickname. On the other hand, if Geiwusipoupoubebbi wants to switch to a name that doesn't paint a target on him, the damage has already been done. If a kid starts out with a normal name, then he has a choice about how exciting he wants his name and decide how much bullying he wants to risk. If he starts out with an exotic name, then he cannot choose how much he sticks out because his parents have taken that choice from him.)

Surely you don't believe that knowingly putting someone in harm's way is only wrong if the harm is "certain." That's a very black-and-white way to think about probability. Tying someone to the train tracks doesn't doom someone to "certain" harm, since someone might find them before the train comes. Giving a friend's address to an escaped convict doesn't have an "unbroken causal connection" with harm to your friend, either, since maybe the convict will try to hide out somewhere else.

One needn't be a consequentialist to have problems with behaviors that predictably stick other people into harm's way, even if the chance of that harm is less than 1.0. I think your moral philosophy is going to need to handle these scenarios, and I see no reason why it couldn't. What do you think of this scenario:

Instead of picking their child up from school, two parents knowingly leave their child to walk home through a dangerous neighborhood. If the reason that the parents do so is because they have to work to be able to feed the child, then perhaps that risk is justified. But is it justified if the reason that the parents don't picking up their child is because they are taking yoga lessons? The kid might be grateful for the exercise.

Yes, but surely not all your prospective partners always look equally promising. If the most promising person around happens to non-white, then go ahead and date them. Who knows how long it might take to find someone as equally promising?

In the time since we last picked up this thread of conversation, I have started dating a half-Armenian guy. I don't know whether he counts as precisely non-white or not. At any rate, I wasn't restricting my pool on this basis at the time. (It does make constructing hypotheticals rather more awkward, though.)

If you agree that parents have a responsibility to protect children who are already born from unnecessary risks, then I think we can move on.

I do so agree for most commonsense values of "unnecessary". But then there's also this.

Calling the child "Wu" would be changing the example.

I don't see how. It's a nickname that drops fairly easily out of the full name, and people do this all the time. I know a lot of people named Matthew and they all go by Matt - if I were contemplating "Matthew" as a name would I be "changing the name" to take this into account?

You don't have a problem with the parents giving the child a name that would almost certainly make him a target of bullying. If you wouldn't advise giving a less-risky name, why would you advise sending the child to a less-risky school environment?

I already have many and strong reasons to support homeschooling. Most of them have to do with school being a miserable goddamn place. Wu would - I concede readily - probably find school to be a more miserable goddamn place, and so those reasons are stronger for him.

Surely you don't believe that knowingly putting someone in harm's way is only wrong if the harm is "certain."

Indeed I do not. But I do hold people responsible for intentions and culpable ignorance, not what their behavior in fact causes.

Instead of picking their child up from school, two parents knowingly leave their child to walk home through a dangerous neighborhood... because they are taking yoga lessons

I could imagine tweaking this scenario enough to make it okay with me, but taking it at face value, yeah, that's not okay.

I think there may be some level of disconnect between my understanding of my attachment to my preferred pretty names and your estimate of how attached the average potential parents are to their preferred pretty names. I'm using my own feelings on the matter as a prior, which perhaps I shouldn't do, but people who don't feel so strongly about it have less reason to stick to their names anyway.

If Candy doesn't like being Candy, she can grow up and call herself C. Eleanor or something.

Or "Candida", which is likely what her full name would be anyway if "her parents named her 'Candy'", and doesn't have the same connotations as "Candy".

"Candace", surely? Candida is a genus of yeast.

Candace does appear to be far more common than Candida, but Candida broke the top 600 names in the 1930s. Even Candace is under that mark, now.

Given two prospective spouses, each with the exact level of physical and personal attractiveness, but one is white and the other black - I would start factoring in race related issues in my decision making.

I don't know what your cultural background might be, but for me to consider someone a prospective spouse, I would need to date him or her for quite some time; since I'm not polyamorously inclined, I'm never going to be concurrently presented with two people I'd consider prospective spouses (of any race). I'd have to explicitly restrict my dating pool to whites if I wanted to wind up with a white spouse.

A child is not a vanity plate.

Well said. Yes, they should have put VANYEL on their vanity plate, not their kid.

The child having a positive outcome in the world (meaning the real world of the present, not the world that should be) [...]

Any talk about positive outcomes refers to a world which should be; positive is in your utility function, not in the territory. There is much more to life than happiness and popularity. For myself, I would rather be unhappy and an outcast than bludgeoned into conformity. Maybe Vanyel cherishes his name and his history, and would despise his counterfactual analogue who had been named Mike. You can't say it would be doing a service to Vanyel to have named him Mike, for if the child had been named Mike, he would have a different childhood and our Vanyel wouldn't exist. The most you can say is that it's better to create a Mike than a Vanyel, because Mike is likely to be happier.

All parents try to raise their children with their values. All parents implicitly make some sort of statement by how they raise their children: if we're going to be talking about statements, then "Christian" is far more egregious than "Vanyel." The question is not whether the parents are going to send a message, the question is whether mainstream messages and unusual messages are of equal moral legitimacy. If you're going to say "No, because children whose parents are sending unusual messages are more likely to be unhappy, and I don't want children to be unhappy, even if it means crushing minority subcultures," fine. Give in to the bullies honestly and explicitly, but don't pretend that sneers about vanity plates don't apply just as well to Christian's parents.

Actually, given how often (anecdotally speaking) children named Christian turn out atheist, that may indeed be giving them a positive outcome...

"Luke S. Yudkowsky" doesn't seem particularly bizarre. Isn't it kind of traditional for people to be embarrassed about their middle name anyway? The others do have problems, though.

If I ever have a daughter, I want to name her Flonne.

Has it occurred to you that a daughter only spends a certain number of years being cute, and then wants to grow up and possibly be President?

I'm pretty sure the grandparent is not serious, given CronoDAS's stated plan of living in his parents' house until they die and then comitting suicide.

Well, I'm half-joking, half-serious. I don't expect to have a daughter any time soon, so it's mostly just a little bit of fantasizing. I can't picture the name as being a barrier to anything, but I'll take your word for it. I really do adore the character, though. It's not because Flonne looks cute, it's because Flonne is kind, caring, and cheerful, the kind of person you'd want with you when things aren't going so well.

I wouldn't try to name a son Laharl, though.

I'm pretty sure the grandparent is not serious, given CronoDAS's stated plan of living in his parents' house until they die and then comitting suicide.

I don't put a very high probability on my actually carrying out that plan; I give at least a 9 out of 10 chance that something is going to send my life in a different direction before my parents both kick the bucket. I do, however, plan on staying in this house for as long as I can. I like this house!

I was once in the same social circle as a guy named Legolas, although I never actually met him myself.

Apparently that was his actual name. His parents were evidently big Lord of the Rings fans.

I knew a girl named Kira after the officer of the same name on Deep Space Nine.

I ran into a girl named Kira at an anime convention a few weeks ago. In that context, the name brings something very different to mind.

With a name like "Utility," while sonorous enough, might this be an invitation to some notion of a need for maximizsation? Is it advisable to freight a child with such expectations? If so, then an alternate that might serve is Bentham(e). At least it could be shortened to Ben. On a lighthearted note, might Utility find himself or herself drawn toward becoming a public utilities worker? (In Latin culture, I'm acquainted with a few people named Jesus and Angel. Suffice to say, none in that sample set appears particularly pious or angelic in disposition or outward behavior. Your mileage may vary.

Tangential to the observation about the Stanford experiement, a story appeared a few years ago about a New York family in which one boy was legally named "Loser;" the other, "Winner." Care to guess which of the two brothers went on to become a police officer? http://www.smh.com.au/articles/2002/07/31/1027926917671.html

Is it advisable to freight a child with such expectations?

That's actually a major concern I have in naming generally, I've known people named after abstract concepts that internalized them quite a bit. I would actually advise against any such name. It messes with your head.

Darn, does that rule out "Joyce" too because that refers to the abstract concept of joy? Or is that okay if I want my child to be joyous? What can I name my kids without having them messed up?

I think saying "I am Joyce" all the time wouldn't have nearly the impact that saying "I am Joy" would.

The trick is, don't think of it as being 'messed up'. There are a lot of different ways of being that are just fine.

One of my children will be named after Alexander the Great and Lex Luthor. I will be teaching her Aristotelian ethics, and I have a strong suspicion she will be told she's a god by her mother.

Well, it may depend on where the person would otherwise be psychologically. I think there are ways of being that are messed up, and the wrong name can at least make that worse. It may be that only a small percentage of "Joy"s would be psychologically harmed.

If a name is the worst mistake a parent makes, then the kid will probably be fine anyway.

"Vladimir" sounds not unlike "One who controls the World" in Russian (Vladet' = to own, mir = World).

My mentor and his wife are fans of Emerson, and their children are named Victor and Will. Victor is named after Frankenstein, as well as the word 'victor'; Will is named for the word 'will'. No telling how they've turned out yet.

A lot of relatively weighty decisions wind up being made for trivial reasons simply because all of the non-trivial factors cancel each other out - for instance, if I were trying to decide whether to go into ethics or metaphysics (a choice with long-term career impact, assuming I get to be a professor one day) and I didn't find myself strongly preferring one over the other, I could see myself picking one for a silly reason. If my name were Ethel, which it is not, and I liked the sound of "Ethel the ethicist", that might tip the balance. Either that, or contemplating that choice would throw into sharp relief something I'd been overlooking in favor of metaphysics. But if there is no such factor, then why not choose on the basis of "Ethel the ethicist" sounding nice? It arguably makes slightly more sense than flipping a coin.

It seems like utility calculations should cancel out to within such a small margin as U(good name) - U(bad name) only very very rarely, especially when there are many different independent considerations. I worry that people may have overactive indifference detectors, and could improve their decision algorithms by learning tricks to distinguish the real slight preferences/estimates underlying what feels to them like very precise indifference but isn't.

I agree that it may plausibly be argued that the difference should rarely fall into the small margin: U(good name) - U(bad name) (up to varying priors, utility functions, ...). However, should people calculate to the point that they can resolve differences of that order of magnitude? A fast and dirty heuristic may be the way to go practically speaking; the difference in utility would be less than the utility lost in calculating it.

If you haven't already, read the part of the paper where they talk about hardware and roofing stores. They ran some clever analyses to see whether the effect was caused by a love of alliteration (for example someone named Herman decides to go into hardware so he can call his store Herman's Hardware) and the results suggested this wasn't the explanation.

Right. Given the prior knowledge, silly reasons may be independent of the serious consequences, even if in the end, when you learn more, they become dependent. High-impact decisions can be indistinguishable from each other at the stage where they are made, so that silly reasons don't (anti)correlate with serious reasons. Silly reasons are not silly because they are anti-intelligent, they are silly because they are irrelevant.

My name is Hal, and I have worked in computer software development for my whole career. :)

My name is Eliezer Yudkowsky... okay, that may not sound very promising, but I've been repeatedly told that my name "sounds just like a scientist's name".

I think that's more like the confounders they try to eliminate: Eliezer Yudkowsky is a very Eastern European / Jewish sounding name, and both Eastern Europeans and Jews are perceived as commonly being scientists.

The -sky ending also calls to mind Lobachevsky, Minsky, Korzybski, Tsiolkovsky, Tarski, and other really smart people.

Interesting. I had always wanted to ask you whether you had run into people who inferred from your name that you were devoutly religious. (Not that it would have taken them very long to be disabused of this idea, of course!)

Hrm... but given that your Jewish upbringing, I can reasonably assume you've heard a certain song/tune/chant multiple times in the past, so.....

"Eliezer Yudkowsky

Eliezer Yudkowsky

Eliezer Eliezer

a Machiiiine been developing"

(couldn't resist :))

You know there are actual experiments centered around showing how much harder that sort of thing is for other people to get, than we think when we sing it in our heads.

*blinks* I'm not surprised that it would be harder to get than we would think, but I didn't realize anyone actually had done an actual study on specifically that.

For some reason, the fact that this was systematically studied makes me happy.

Anyways, got a link/reference/info on that? Thanks.

Prob'ly it varies from person to person. It would be harder for me to read this without singing it in my head (and I hadn't read its grandparent when I read it).

As long as we're sharing, I think my name being Thomas was influential in nudging me towards philosophy. I'd like to think I have more than a little in common with the Dumb Ox. Not to mention the apostle.

But you've missed the most important point!

It means that the comic book tendency to get super-powers coincidentally related to your real name actually works!

Now if only I can figure out a superpower related to the name Jonnan, I can figure out what kind of radioactive bug to be bit by?

Jonnan

That is all quite fascinating, in a "fancy that!" fashion, but whenever I see correlational data reported I wonder about the magnitude of the effect, and a measure of that magnitude in terms of bits of information. The first result they report is that if there were no influence between name and state of residence, the proportion of coincidences would be 0.1664, while the observed level is 0.1986. How large an influence does this represent?

I am not quite sure what the correct calculation to make is -- perhaps someone more versed in these matters can say -- but when I calculate the Kullback-Leibler divergence between two binary distributions, one with p=0.1664 and the other with p=0.1986, I get about 0.005 bits. When I estimate the mutual information between name and state, making various assumptions about the data I'd need for a precise calculation, I get a similar figure.

In short, if you want to predict someone's name from their state, or vice versa, the result is completely useless. Of course, making such a prediction was not the authors' purpose. But then, what was? What can you do with less than a hundredth of a bit?

How justifiable is it to report the finding in these words (quotes from the paper):

people are attracted to places that resemble their own names.

and

these findings challenge traditional assumptions about how people make major life decisions

I have just found where Andrew Gelman has blogged about this (search his blog for "Pelham"). I don't have time to read what he says at the moment, but his headlines indicate he doesn't rate it.

More specifically, such a small effect does not require a widespread bias; if just a tiny number of people have a stronger (even conscious) bias, it could explain the data.

Ah. I figured he must have done it at some point since the only copy of the PDF file I could find was on Andrew's site with the name "stuff-for-blog", but Google searches for "Gelman Pelham" and "Gelman name letter" didn't turn anything up. If I'd known I would have just linked him. I hope he's not upset that I'm "copying" him.

I did not first read this study on Gelman's blog. Actually, there is a story behind where I first read it. It was in a college psychology class. I was quite nervous throughout class that day, because I was going to ask the professor after class to write me a letter of recommendation for a postgrad program in Scotland I wanted to get into. We spent an hour or so going over this paper and implicit egoism, and then after class I asked the professor to help me get into the program, and she started cracking up.

...see, my real name is Scott, and it was a program in Scotland, and we'd just finished studying the name letter effect...the next day she told the entire class about it, and I was suitably embarrassed, and the name letter effect has stuck in my memory ever since.

I live in the state of Georgia and recently I had noticed that I pay special attention to news stories about the country of Georgia. This happens despite that the country has no special relevance besides sharing a name with my state. This post gives me some insight as to why that happens.

This doesn't seem dissimilar to some experiences I had in elementary school. Whenever the teacher would read a story to the class, and a character had the same name as someone in the class, when the teacher read the name of that character, everyone in the class would look at that person. If the character in the story was doing something funny, then everyone would laugh at that person. The class thought it was especially funny when the character contrasted sharply with the person in class. If there was a character that was an old man named Jason, then the class would laugh that their Jason was 5 years old. Later there would probably be jokes about Jason being an old man or a game where Jason was playing the part of an old man. I don't yet know how this ties in, but it's seems interesting when thinking about names and identity.

When thinking about the first initial similarities, one thing came to mind:

"I cdnuolt blveiee taht I cluod aulaclty uesdnatnrd waht I was rdanieg."

"The phaonmneal pweor of the hmuan mnid Aoccdrnig to rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn't mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoatnt tihng is taht the frist and lsatltteer be in the rghit pclae."

"The rset can be a taotl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit a porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe. Amzanig huh?"

This seems to suggest that the mind uses a symbol recognition hack. Not that different from being able to scan a list and find your own name faster than someone elses. Is it possible that this bias shows up more often in written word than in speech? Could it be that when looking at a list of possible careers, our eyes are drawn toward symbols which trigger recognition and so we are more likely to focus on those?!?

Ulounnaefrtty alphiinomcscg tihs rriueeqs taht uaentrects be dtuviiinme not too hnmuuoogs. Aslo crtiaen ltteer ciinntoombas msut go ugheanncd.

...

Unfortunately, accomplishing this requires that utterances be diminutive not too humongous. Also certain letter combinations must go unchanged.

It also helps to use words I actually know how to spell.

"The rset can be a taotl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit a porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe. Amzanig huh?"

However, "a total mess" can only be certain patterns("randomly", but not eg in reverse order).

And you get a worse result on the Stroop test after reading such a text than after reading the same text with correct spelling. In other words, such texts generate akrasia.

Here's one way this could be explained: Susie realizes that her name could become a cheap and effective marketing tool if she sells seashells at the seashore. Since that's something she enjoys doing anyway, she does so.

If that's how things are, I wouldn't really call this a cognitive bias.

Is this whole bias caused by the exposure effect? Would there be any obstacle in unifying the two? Do people also prefer to live in towns that are associated with their parents' names? Do people who fall for this effect also name their pets or children after themselves to a greater extent?

The second link in the article, the one with the words "they find", is a paper called "Name Letter Preferences Are Not Merely Mere Exposure". You should find some useful studies and stuff there.

If you want the paper but can't access it, tell me your email and I'll send it to you.

If you have any doubts about the validity of the research, I urge you to read the linked paper. It's a great example of researchers who go above and beyond the call of duty to eliminate as many confounders as possible.

I'd be more confident if there was any research by someone other than Pelman on the subject. There is always a possibility for biased selection of data and deceptive interpretation of analysis.

I'd be interested to know if people who live in towns or have jobs that sound like their names enjoy these residences/careers more than people who live in the same town/have the same career, but have different-sounding names.

You might still not get meaningful results. Having grown up in Shelton, CT (Huntington, specifically) I find I prefer things and people called "Shelton", "Huntington", or "Connecticut". I'm not sure if I would have more of a preference for a place that sounds like my name than for those places.

Though it's all fairly irrelevant since New Haven is the greatest city in the world.

Data point:

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the majority opinion in Kennedy v. Louisiana, a highly controversial 2008 case striking down the death penalty for child rape.

In this 5-4 decision favoring a petitioner named Patrick Kennedy, Justice Kennedy, widely considered a "swing vote" with conservative leanings, sided with the liberals on the court and against the conservatives -- clearly determining the outcome of the case.

I put this here because this post was the first thing I thought of when I ran across this piece of information. One should of course bear in mind the frequency effect.

Um....okay....person who downvoted this: What was the message you were trying to send? Was it:

-Don't post anecdotes (possibly) illustrating the point of the post? (In which case, did you take care to downvote all the above comments doing the same thing?)

-Don't comment on an old post? (Is that a rule we really want to establish?)

-There's no way that Justice Kennedy's decision could have been influenced by name bias, and surely every sane person realizes this? (What makes you so sure? And did I say that it was? Isn't it all right merely to raise the possibility?)

For goodness' sake, I even put in a disclaimer about the frequency effect!

Only a tiny percentage of people who make name-associated decisions make them because of name-association (see Gelman's analysis). Thus, finding an example of a decision in the presence of name-association is overwhelmingly unlikely to be an example of a decision influenced by name-association. Such anecdote, even when given without this conclusion, fallacy of which you might have realized yourself, can't be relevant to the pattern discussed in this post. It thus implicitly suggests this conclusion, as its sole raison d'etre, turning it into a misleading "not technically a lie".

But how is my anecdote any less relevant than the others above, which were in fact deemed acceptable commentary on the post? Indeed, you seem to be arguing against the thrust of the post itself, rather than my individual comment.

Also, does mere failure of an example warrant downvoting? (Rhetorical question; it doesn't. For instance, it may prompt a discussion of the reasons the example fails, which may add value to the discussion. Or it may be neutral. Downvoting implies the added value is outright negative.)

I'm not happy with many of the other anecdotes either. Example being misleading is a negative effect. Seeing patterns where there's none is a basic failure in human mind, we should know better than to indulge it.

Example being misleading is a negative effect.

I could see a case for this if:

(1) The existence of the phenomenon under discussion was not itself in dispute;

(2) The failed example is likely to lead to confusion about the nature of the (undisputed) phenomenon;

and

(3) The commenter should have known this, or in some other way the example was not offered in good faith.

Looking through your previous comments, and noting your citation of Gelman, it appears that you are skeptical of the name-bias phenomenon itself as posited by Yvain and those he cites; hence (1) does not hold. Regarding (2), I find it highly unlikely that someone following the discussion about whether name-bias exists is going to be misled or confused by a particular anecdote that may or may not exemplify the phenomenon (depending in particular on whether the phenomenon exists). As for (3), the comment was quite consistent with the spirit of the preceding discussion. It should also be noted that (as I hinted) the name coincidence in the court decision would not have caught my attention if I hadn't read the post -- this fact alone arguably makes it worthy of a comment on said post.

It would be different if you accepted Yvain's claims (1), but thought my example would mislead folks about what it was that Yvain was describing (2). As it is, however, a court decision such as I mentioned clearly counts as a candidate for name-bias, if you assume that name-bias as described in the post actually exists. The issue is that you don't accept this premise in the first place. Consequently I don't see a defensible rationale for downvoting in this context. (Certainly not without also downvoting the main post.)

I accept that the effect might be real, but neither the main post, nor the paper itself are at odds with interpreting this effect as tiny. Being tiny, the effect can't be used in interpreting the structure of specific examples, it doesn't suggest that any given example has good chances of being a name-based decision.

Intriguing... I can imagine that having a certain name may have an effect on people (as illustrated by the late Johnny Cash), but this is weird... Couldn't there be some alternative explanation?

E.g., maybe there's a regional preference for certain names, and they picked the regional preferred ones that happened to fit the desired pattern (Study 1)? Similarly for study 7, where names are correlated with with social stratum, year of birth, which also influence occupation.

For some of the studies they picked very specific examples - hardware v.s. roofing or only a couple of names; could there be some confirmation bias?

Anyway, only guessing here -- some of the results are harder to explain. But I think there could still be some more boring explanation related to the set up of the studies.

Here's my take on why the name bias exists: the name bias is a byproduct of the consistency bias.

Like we all know, we are inclined to be consistent with our prior beliefs and actions. Another aspect our ourselves that we tend to want to be consistent with is our perceived identity. For instance, if you identify yourself as a manly man then you'll have a more natural affinity to things you perceive to be manly.

Obviously, your name plays a big role in the construction of your identity. Your tendency to prefer things that sound like your name is just your mind trying to keep you consistent with you identity. Because it doesn't make much evolutionary sense to prefer things that sound like your name, think of it as a glitch in the consistency bias.