I’m fascinated by the process of choosing a name for an unborn baby. Do you choose a name that honors a beloved relative? Do you find something that reflects qualities you want your child to embody? Do you want your child to have certain strengths that will be reflected in his or her name?
F. Diane Barth L.C.S.W. is a psychotherapist and psychoanalyst in private practice in New York City where she works with adults and adolescents, individuals and families. She has a B.A. and an M.S.W. from Columbia University and graduated as a certified psychoanalyst from the Psychoanalytic Institute of the Postgraduate Center. She leads private study groups in New York and workshops for therapists around the country. Her articles have been published in the Clinical Social Work Journal, Psychoanalytic Dialogues, Psychoanalytic Psychology, and other professional journals, and as chapters in numerous books, and her book Daydreaming: Unlock the Creative Power of Your Mind was published by Viking/Penguin.
Editor: Saad Shaheed
Listening to clients try out different combinations of names from their families, their cultures, and their imaginations has always offered a fascinating window not only into their hopes and dreams for a new child, but also their own psychology. Still, it never occurred to me that they were in the process of creating a name that would impact what their children would look like. But now a study published in the February 2017 Journal of Personality and Social Psychology tells us that our given name can influence our facial appearance.
A group of psychologists from Israel, France, and the United States tell us that research had already shown that our facial appearance can affect what other people think about us. But, they wondered, could it work in reverse? Could our name affect our facial appearance?
Their hypothesis was that a similar kind of stereotyping links names and facial appearance in others' minds. In the course of eight studies in two countries, they found what they call a “face-name matching effect,” through which another person and even a computer were able to accurately match a person’s name to his or her face significantly more successfully than could be attributed to chance.
The study’s authors, led by Yonat Zwebner of the School of Business Administration at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, suggest that this ability to connect names with faces has to do with the fact that names have “social meaning and can impart significant and differentiated impressions, both positive and negative.”
In every culture, people share ideas about not only what people with certain names look like, but about their character and behaviors. And, the researchers hypothesize, people begin to do things, like cut their hair and wear their makeup in certain ways, that align with those shared images. In other words, a name can not only be a self-fulfilling prophecy in terms of what our children do with their lives, but it can also impact what they do with their appearance. And ultimately, these behaviors affect the way their faces look.
If you're in the process of choosing a name for your child, I would discourage you from letting this news make you too anxious: Even with the best of intentions, we can’t control what our children do with what we give them, so just remember that what you hope a name will mean may not be what it actually means to them.
For example, a friend named one of her daughters after a strong woman she had always admired, but by the time the little girl was a preteen, that name had come to represent flagrant excess in the culture in which she was growing up.
Similarly, a couple I know named their son after a great scientist, but some years later that name became associated with a famous criminal, and it was with the criminal that his peers connected the name. I don’t think he was worried about looking like the criminal, but he certainly didn’t like the teasing. So, like many kids, he simply changed it, to something he liked better.