New psychology research reveals surprising link between your name and your life choices

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Would someone named Dennis be more likely to be a dentist and live in Denver? A new study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggests yes.

Nominative determinism is the idea that people are drawn to professions or places that share the same initial letter as their name, building on the concept of implicit egotism, which posits that people are naturally drawn to things that resemble themselves. By analyzing text corpora from Common Crawl, Twitter, Google News, and Google Books, Promothesh Chatterjee and colleagues tested whether this tendency could influence major life decisions such as career paths and city choices.

The researchers used pre-trained word embeddings from large text datasets to measure the cosine similarity between vectors representing names and professions or city names. They focused on first names, arguing these are more central to personal identity than surnames, which can change over a lifetime. The datasets included 3,410 names from the U.S. Social Security Administration, which appeared consistently across all years between 2011-2020. Names were matched with ethnicity data from Tzioumis (2018). Professions and cities were extracted and filtered to include only single-word entries (e.g., “doctor”, “Chicago”).

The researchers controlled for various factors, including gender, ethnicity, and the frequency of names and professions, to isolate the effect of nominative determinism.

The researcher team found a consistent effect of nominative determinism across all datasets. Names with a high cosine similarity to certain professions (for example, Dennis and dentist, Dennis and Denver) were more common than would be expected by chance. This pattern also held true for city choices, where names were more likely to be associated with cities sharing the same initial letter. The findings were consistent across decades, demonstrating that the nominative determinism effect has been a stable phenomenon throughout the 20th century.

Interestingly, the researchers observed a Decade by Gender interaction in the nominative determinism effect for professions. Men exhibited a stronger nominative determinism effect in the early 20th century, but this difference diminished over time as women gained more career choices. This shift suggests that as societal norms evolved, allowing women more freedom in career selection, their names played a more significant role in their professional identities.

Increased access to higher education reduced the effect of name initials on career choices, suggesting that those with higher education are less influenced by nominative determinism, perhaps because their education provides a stronger identity marker than their name.

A limitation noted by the authors is the cross-sectional nature of the data. While the datasets provided a snapshot of nominative determinism, they do not capture longitudinal changes within individuals’ lifespans.

The study, “Does the first letter of one’s name affect life decisions? A natural language processing examination of nominative determinism”, was authored by Promothesh Chatterjee, Himanshu Mishra, and Arul Mishra.

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