Fortune Telling: How Names Predict the Future


Article by Ryne Hisada, Editor-in-Chief

Reading Time: 3 minutes

By its very definition, a “given name” cannot be chosen by oneself. Parents often consider the meaning of names, either by definition or association, in hopes of shaping a child’s life around positive virtues.  Though seemingly superficial, modern social biases influence perception, making names a source of predestination for many. As a consequence of popular associations, implicit or otherwise, personal labels shape career paths, opportunities, and success. 

It is not uncommon for names, particularly surnames, to have some connection to an occupation or characteristic. Those with “aptronyms” have their professions reflected rather amusingly: Storm Field was an American meteorologist; Igor Judge, a former Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales; and Sue Yoo, an American business attorney. 

In some instances, the cause of the aptronym phenomenon can be identified as an issue of biology. Martin Voracek, professor of psychology at the University of Vienna, explains that people named Smith inherit the physical prowess of their smithing ancestors, with a reported above-average aptitude for “strength-related activities.” He theorizes that those with greater natural capacities for certain activities are perhaps more likely to pursue related occupations. 

Applicable only to some inherited names, Voracek’s proposition works in conjunction with a more encompassing theory: humans instinctively prefer things that they associate with themselves. Referred to as “implicit egotism,” the theory asserts that even simple similarities, like shared initials, can influence career choices. 

A study conducted in 2002 found a disproportionately higher number of dentists named Dennis in comparison to Walter, an equally common name of the time. In 2010, similar findings exposed an unusual abundance of Raymonds working in radiology than in dermatology, indicating that matching initial letters had a positive correlation with job specialty. Hereditary or assigned, it is undeniable that names have some persuasive effect on career choices.  

Varying region to region and language to language, names also frequently carry a heavy association with race and ethnicity—in some cases, they become a catalyst of modern social biases. Barack Obama, for example, regularly pokes fun at his middle name, Hussein, by pointing out how unusual it is for a U.S. President. 

Obama’s comments arise from a post-9/11 American attitude towards Muslims. After the terrorist attack, Arab-Americans faced heightened discrimination, including in employment. Research has shown that given the same résumé, job applicants who have an Arabic-sounding name are half as likely to be offered an interview as applicants with “typical white-sounding names.” 

Yet prejudice as a consequence of naming is not particular to the United States. Economists at Stockholm University argue that foreigners in Sweden who change their names to sound more local enjoy improved earnings in comparison to similar migrants who kept their foreign names. Because names often indicate race and ethnicity, some people suffer economic inequities from common socio-cultural associations. 

Unlike economic status, however, academic achievement is regarded as a product of effort and innate talent—rarely is one’s name recognized as a contributing factor. An essential facet of identity, our names can actually affect academic performance: in particular, our motivation in group settings is intrinsically linked to the perception of belonging, and those with unusual names are at greater risk of flunking school, even at reputable institutions like Harvard. 

To explain this, experts like social psychologist Frederick Wells theorize that unconventional names induce a self-perception of social isolation. A person’s self-consciousness about their name can also prompt internal expectations that affect academic motivation.

At American universities, being named Albert or Barry proves advantageous over Chase and Dan. Reflecting the traditional letter grade system, students whose names begin with letters A and B have generally higher grade point averages than colleagues with initials C and D—a result of heightened academic expectations caused by implicit connections. For better or worse, self-perception of our names influences motivation in school. 

Our given names determine more than we think. Sometimes a gift of guidance and other times a curse of constraint, our names drive our destinies.