Would you go on a date with a guy called Marvin? Or how about a girl calling herself Chantal? If you’re hesitating, then you’re not alone. According to a study published in last month’s issue of Social Psychological and Personality Science, first names serve as particularly crucial – if deceptive – guideposts once we venture into the perilous world of online dating.
“What’s in a name?” Shakespeare once asked. A lot more than meets the eye, it seems. The study, entitled “Unfortunate First Names: Effects of Name-Based Relational Devaluation and Interpersonal Neglect,” is the work of German psychologists Jochen E. Gebauer and Wiebke Neberich in cooperation with American scholar Mark R. Leary. Drawing on 47,000 German dating platform users as guinea pigs, it compared “online daters with somewhat unattractive versus somewhat attractive first names.” The authors found that “across all studies, negatively named individuals were more neglected by other online daters, as indicated by fewer first visits to their dating profiles. This form of neglect arguably mirrors a name-based life history of neglect, discrimination, prejudice, or even ostracism. Supporting this argument, neglect mediated the relation between negative names and lower self-esteem, more frequent smoking, and less education.” Ultimately, the report found, “Negative names evoke negative interpersonal reactions, which in turn influence people’s life outcomes for the worse.“
Why do potential mates make such unflattering associations? Part of the problem has to do with the fact that the possession of certain names points to parents who draw their inspiration in life – and their dreams for their children’s future – not from the Bible and other thoughtful works of Western culture but rather from the good old boob-tube. For example, in continental Europe the popular name Kevin is normally associated with actor Kevin Costner and the Kevin McAllister character played by Macauly Culkin in the Home Alone movies. Sure, it’s a nice enough name in its own right, but when it comes to online dating the researchers found that love-seeking women were 102 times more likely to click on dating profiles with the illustrious name “Alexander.” Charlotte and Jacob were winners too. As for Justin (Timberlake?), Marvin (Gaye?), Chantal, Mandy, Jacqueline, and Celina... not so much. In fact, in a 2008 study, German teachers associated these trendy names with dysfunctional schoolchildren.
In an interview last week, psychologist Jochen E. Gebauer described this phenomenon as “Kevinism”:
This probably comes from the fact that people with less education experience enhanced enthusiasm for TV shows and call their kids after them. When parents possess little education, their children also frequently have less opportunity to get any. At this point, the effect has nothing more to do with first names. But people who encounter a Kevin automatically suspect him of being poorly educated. This can lead to additional negative consequences for a person’s life.
Gebauer goes on to explain:
First names are connected to stereotypes. When we become acquainted with people, their appearance plays a role, but so does what this person is called. That is often the first information we get. This impression has a powerful effect on how we process additional information about this person. If a person has a dubious name, we often automatically associate him with a dubious stereotype. And we proceed to evaluate all further information based on this dubiousness.
He urges parents to choose their children’s first names with care.
I suppose this is the point in this article when I should list some American names that have no right to exist, but do you really want me to? Instead I’ll just point out that the Israeli Knesset has just introduced a bill to outlaw “insulting names.” Its sponsors, Zevulun Orlev of the Habayit Hayehudi party and Miri Regev from Likud explain that their proposal "would insure the conduct of a professional examination to prevent the giving of a damaging name. Giving a hurtful and insulting name to a minor, or names of curses or negative figures, could make him an object of mockery in the eyes of his peers and damage his self-image and self-confidence."
Ultimately, the difference between an "insulting" name and an acceptable one is in the eye of the beholder - or potential dating partner. A few years back, a New Zealand judge ruled that the names "Fish and Chips" (for twins), "Yeah Detroit," "Keenan Got Lucy," and "Sex Fruit" are not permissible baby names, whereas "Number 16 Bus Shelter" and "Violence" were perfectly "awright." Not long ago, a Kiwi couple tried to name their son "4Real," but had to settle for "Superman" instead.
I’m not sure if this sort of court-supervised micromanaging of a child’s future, as it is already practiced in several countries around the world, is entirely the right way to go, although it could save a person dating stress fifteen or twenty years down the way. But who is to decide what name will be “in” in the future? As Neugebauer says, “My father wanted to name my sister Emma. Thirty years ago that would have been embarrassing, but today it’s all the rage!”
I didn’t see my own name mentioned in the study, but just to play it safe I’ll hold off on changing it to Chantal until further notice.