Monday, November 26, 2007

Dennis Becomes a Dentist and Moves to Denver

In the last few weeks, it seems like I keep coming across references to Brett Pelham's work on name effects in life decisions. Striking stuff! Here are some data from his 2002 article:

Ratio of lawyers to dentists among people whose names start with "Den": 7.22.
Ratio of lawyers to dentists among people whose names start with "La": 8.98.

Odds of moving from one's home state to live in Virginia, as opposed to Georgia, among people named Virginia: 2.10.
Odds among people named Georgia: 0.97.

Increased likelihood of living in the city of "St. X" if your first name is X (e.g., Paul in St. Paul, Louis in St. Louis): 44%.
Increased likelihood if your last name is X: 55%.

Pelham and his coauthors go on through dozens of analyses. They conclude that people are attracted to locales and careers in part because of the similarity to their names. Although one could quibble with each analysis -- maybe people with family ties to Georgia are more likely to name their daughters Georgia, maybe people in St. Paul are more likely to name their children Paul (and so people named Paul don't choose to live in St. Paul) -- the effect is so widespread and consistent among so many different measures that Pelham's conclusion feels hard to resist by the end.

I suppose it's no surprise that we are as irrational in our big life decisions (where to live) as in our small decisions (where to eat lunch) and as influenced by silly little things.

Or is it irrational? Maybe there's nothing inherently unreasonable in choosing one's residence based on similarity to one's name rather than (say) climate or job opportunities. Probably people have little self-knowledge about the influences of such factors on their decisions - but does that make the operation of such factors irrational? Acting on hunches and intutions, without knowing their basis, is not always irrational. Might Virginia be a little happier living in Virginia? I don't see why not. If so, and if salary (above poverty levels) doesn't have much of an effect on happiness (as per recent research), then maybe Dennis is better off earning $60K in Denver than $70K in Atlanta, and his gut steered him right.

Well, I don't know. But as a Schwitzgebel, it's natural for me to be drawn to scepticism!

8 comments:

Cihan Baran said...

Are people named 'Phil' more likely to become philosophers?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

It has occurred to me to look through the APA membership list to check this!

One confound is that "Phil" is an Anglo name and Anglos are probably more likely to become philosophers.

John said...

As an undergrad, I once took an economics course from a Prof. Economopoulos. The first day of class he commented on his choice of career; he felt obligated because he was so named.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

LOL! What a great name for an economist!

Brad C said...

Hi Eric,

Some quick googling leads me to believe you would be more happy if you moved to Switzerland!

"The name Schwitzgebel originated in Switzerland and is first documented in Lauenen and Saanen in 1494, where it is reported that an immigrant, whose name was Gabriel and who had come from Canton Schwyz, was nicknamed Gäbel. "Schwyz Gäbel" evolved, then, to Schwitzgebel. Later, there are mentioned Jakob, Kastlan (warden of a castle) 1692 and 1790; and Ulrich, Landsnenner (Official) 1816 and 1820."

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Ah, Schwitzgebel the sceptic from Switzerland. It does have a nice ring!

Anonymous said...

A new article in Psych Science article "Moniker Maladies: When Names Sabotage Success" suggests we do this even when it's clearly detrimental.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the pointer!