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Big Name Bias. Are we being Trumped?

Has the rise of Trump been influenced by his name? Ever heard of ‘nominative determinism’, the hypothesis that a person’s name determines life choices and character? I hadn’t until I read Drunk Tank Pink (Alter, 2013). Jung heralded the theory and researchers have found many unconscious links between our names, our behaviours and their effect on others.


Unconscious Effect of Names 


Aptronyms - a bit of fun?

Aptronyms are names which reflect our interests.  German psychologists provide several high profile examples. Jules Angst, German professor of psychiatry, published works on anxiety. In German the word Jung means ‘young’ and Freud means ‘joy’. Jung focused on rebirth and Freud on the pleasure principle. Adler means ‘eagle’. His focus? The will to power.


Really? Surely aptronyms are just coincidences. OK, Usain Bolt is the fastest man.  William Wordsworth was a poet, Margaret Court a tennis player, Derek and Dale Kickett made great football players.  We’re amused by doctors called Blood and lawyers called Crook.


So, if Jung’s theory holds, names could focus our abilities.  Justin Case would excel in the insurance industry.  Ed Turner would be an irresistible model and his sister Paige a successful novelist. Teresa Greene a thriving landscaper, Celia Fate a convincing futurologist.  I’m personally looking for Lou Pole to do my tax. Fertility consultant Drew A. Blank however would please few clients.


Of course there are also enough people to disprove the theory that name reflects outcome. An English musician, John Balance, died after falling from a balcony. Frank Beard from ZZ Top was the only band member not to have a beard.


And, if our names determine fate I would be a jeweller not a diversity specialist. I married a Gardiner but he and our offspring could kill a cactus. I’m not convinced.

Unconscious Effect of Names - Practice


While aptronyms may not determine what we do, research provides compelling evidence that we are unconsciously affected by names:

  • Psychologists have found that people are more likely to donate to causes that share their initials. For example, donors for Hurricane Katrina with the initial K spiked from an average donor rate of 4% to 10%. (Chandler, Griffin, Sorenson, 2008).

  • People with last names beginning with later letters in the alphabet, e.g. York or Zimmerman, growing up waiting longer in line, respond quicker to opportunity than people with names like Alder, Baxter or Conner (Clarkson, Conrad, 2011).


It is vital for organisations to acknowledge the effect of name bias in the workplace.

  • Race is a well-established factor. In the US applicants with ‘black’ names need to apply on average 50% more often than people with Anglo names.

  • In Australian workplaces, confirming the ‘Bamboo Ceiling’ (a dearth of leaders of Asian descent), people with Chinese names need to apply 68% more often to receive an interview.


The Bias of Pronunciation and Spelling


If someone's name is easy to spell and pronounce (fluent) it increases likability. By contrast, research shows disfluent (hard to pronounce) names disadvantage:

  • Job applicants,

  • The ascension of lawyers within law firms, and

  • Investments in companies on the stock market (Latham, Koval & Alter, 2012, Alter & Oppenheimer, 2006).


In the US political landscape, the intersection of names, language and culture is fascinating.


Donald Trump’s ascendancy of course is not due solely to his name. Its fluency and Anglicised form (it was changed from the German Drumpf by his ancestors) may be an advantage. ‘Trump’ is already a powerful brand name. Laurel Sutton from a naming agency and Nancy Friedman a branding expert were interviewed by the Boston Globe in 2015. Sutton describes ‘Trump’ as an unusual name, “a single-word name, which sounds very grounded, very firm,” which makes it more “masculine-sounding.” Friedman noted that the ‘p’ on the end particularly gave it strength. ‘Clinton’ by comparison sounds like a tinkling bell. Listen to the responding crowds in America, the pounding, “Trump. Trump. Trump.” chorus beats a drum. “Clinton. Clinton. Clinton.” just doesn’t have the same ring (pardon the pun).


Alter, a psychologist at New York University’s Stern School of Business and author of Drunk Tank Pink further explains name bias. The positive concept associations of a name can also project a halo effect. Names such as Fairchild and Hart have benefitted American politicians in the past (O’Sullivan, Chen, Mohapatra, Sigelman & Lewis, 1988).


Combine the name with a strong cultural ethos and you have a potent unconscious bias. Don Watson observed America’s indefatigable desire for winning – “No other culture is so disinclined to believe in the futility of existence. The cross, the high five and the facelift all express the same conviction that life is winnable.” Trump’s name unequivocally conjures victory.


During a speech at Liberty University Trump, like a hyped WWE announcer, proclaimed, "You'll see if I'm president, you'll say, 'Please, Mr. President, Mr. President, we're winning too much. I can't stand it. Can't we have a loss?' And I say no, we're going to keep winning, winning, winning because we're going to make America great again." The crowd responded with a booming, “Trump. Trump. Trump!”


Persuasion, trust, and belief are complex human bonds in politics and also the workplace. The forces remain the same from stadiums to tearooms. We judge each other. One aspect or trigger for bias may not dramatically alter the status quo but research continues to identify multiple causes and effects. Name bias is just one. Like a myriad of invisible tickertape, unconscious bias surrounds our everyday interactions. Following research and examining the phenomena of global, national and organisational culture and reflecting on our beliefs and actions is our most effective way to improve rational decision-making. 


Funny names aside, the consequences of our bias may not be so funny.

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