What your name says about how believable you are

Research suggests we're more likely to accept someone's claims if we know how to pronounce their name

Topics: Scientific American, Stephen Colbert, Truthiness, Names, Neuroscience,

What your name says about how believable you are
This article was originally published by Scientific American.

Scientific American Imagine that you are evaluating two equally suitable job candidates’ applications for a position in your successful yogurt company. Both make equally impressive claims about their potential future contributions, and you are left with a difficult decision: Should you rather hire Chen Meina, or Shobha Bhattacharya?

People often face situations like this, where decisions need to be made, even with limited knowledge. For instance, if I told you that turtles are deaf, unless you are an expert in sea-dwelling reptiles, you probably have little information to help you decide whether the statement is true or false. However, we often simply feel that something is true. The comedian Stephen Colbert named this gut feeling “truthiness”: “truth that comes from the gut, not books.” Psychological research has shown that even unrelated information can influence our decisions and feelings of truthiness: For example, you are more likely to agree with the statement “Turtles are deaf” if that claim is paired with a photograph of a turtle.

So, you face a decision between two remarkably similar job candidates, who are very similar apart from their names. You have very limited information on which to base your decision; what information are you going to use to help you decide? Could their names influence your decision? A team of researchers from Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, and Kwantlen Polytechnic University in Canada, led by Dr. Eryn Newman, asked precisely this question: To what extent are our evaluations of people’s credibility swayed by how easily we can pronounce their names?

In a new study, published in PLoS ONE, the researchers asked undergraduate volunteers to rate the pronounceability of real names from 18 countries, and then used these ratings to generate a set of difficult to pronounce names, such as Yevgeni Dherzhinsky, and a set of easy names, such as Putali Angami.

The researchers then told a new group of undergraduate participants that some international students had listed their favorite trivia statements, such as “Giraffes are the only mammals that cannot jump,” and that the participants’ task would be to read some of those statements, and report whether they thought that the statements were true or false. Importantly, each trivia statement was paired with a difficult to pronounce name (“Yevgeni Dherzhinsky said:”), or an easy name, from the sets generated earlier.

The authors hypothesized that claims paired with easy names would be rated as true more often than claims paired with difficult names. The results supported the authors’ hypothesis: Difficult to pronounce names led to near-chance “true” responses, whereas statements paired with easy names elicited more “true” responses. The results from this study clearly show that the pronounceability of people’s names can influence the “truthiness” we feel when evaluating their claims: We seem to believe Putali Angami and Bodo Wallmeyer more than Shobha Bhattacharya and Yevgeny Dherzhinsky. Keep this in mind the next time you are about to purchase a car: Although you feel like you agree with her, perhaps that rusty Cadillac from 1981 isn’t the hidden treasure that your salesperson, Mary, claims it to be.

The pronounceability of people’s names affects more than just the perceived truthiness of statements attributed to those names. In other experiments, using the same names, Dr. Newman and colleagues asked participants to rate the names on their perceived familiarity, riskiness, and how dangerous the owners of those names seem. The results from these experiments showed that people with easier to pronounce names were judged as more familiar, less risky and less dangerous than individuals with difficult to pronounce names. So, who would you pick as your tandem skydiving partner, Bodo or Czeslaw? If you are anything like most English-speaking people, you would be likely to prefer jumping out of the plane with Bodo. If, on the other hand, you find Polish easier to pronounce, you would probably choose to jump with Czeslaw.

This finding should perhaps raise concerns among people who might find them at the receiving end of such unconscious biases, such as immigrants. In another recent study, researchers from the Institute for the Study of Labor in Bonn, Germany, examined how well immigrants to the United States in the early 1900s fared in the labor market. Many of these immigrants chose to Americanize their names by, for example, changing their first name from Artyom to William. The researchers found that immigrants who Americanized their names fared better in the labor market and achieved higher incomes.

As a recent immigrant to the United States, I wonder whether I should worry about the potential negative implications of my name on my future career success. At the very least, as Dr. Newman and her colleagues’ results suggest: People might find this article to be more credible if I had a different name. Or, as I like to think, you are less likely to go skydiving with me than you would be if my name was Brad Pitt.

However, the impact of a name’s pronounceability is not limited to how we assess other people—our judgments about products and companies are biased by their names as well. Other researchers have found that shares with easy to pronounce names, such as “Clearman,” perform better in the stock market than shares with difficult to pronounce names, such as “Mextskry.” Yet another study showed that food additives with difficult to pronounce names (“Hnegripitrom”) are perceived as more harmful than additives with easier names (“Magnalroxate”).

Awareness of our hidden biases is important not only for the fair treatment of job applicants (and food additives), but can also be a matter of severe consequences. As Dr. Newman and colleagues ask: “Would the pronounceability of eyewitnesses’ names shape jury verdicts?”

So, you are trying to decide whether to hire Chen Meina, or Shobha Bhattacharya. If you find yourself favoring one over the other, with no information to support your intuition—or feeling of “truthiness”—these studies suggest that one reason for your preference is that you simply find this name easier to pronounce.

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