In the Name of Psychology Is there any task a supercomputer shouldn’t try? After all, the three-pound, four-lobed one in our heads contains about one hundred billion neurons and runs all the systems that comprise our bodies. It’s responsible for every thought, move, perception, judgement and calculation you make. Our brains take in data and process it, which is then made usable by way of knowledge. So, is there anything this supercomputer disregards? Not so much it seems, including what’s taboo in today’s society, like judging someone by their name. In the name of psychology, we try to work out how and at what cost.

A study by John L. Cotton and Bonnie S. O’Neill indicated that common names were seen as least unique, best liked, and most likely to be hired. Conversely, unusual names were seen as least liked and least likely to be hired. So, as it turns out, names have a significant impact on how we are viewed and, conceivably, our potential for being hired. Another study showed that unusual names like Ajax, Magestic, and Tangerine were viewed less favorably during hiring decisions.

Names are also rich sources of information. They can signal gender, ethnicity and even class. A name can be a connotation of the bearer’s age and, worryingly, we sometimes perceive it as signaling intellectual competence.

How Do You Say It?

The easier a name is to pronounce, the more likely people are to favor them, and easy processing is the brain’s favorite type of entry. In other words, people like what is familiar to them.  When any of our social engineers go in with a pretext where we aren’t impersonating a real individual at the company, we always use simple, clear and traditional names, unless our circumstances call for the reverse.

Furthermore, psychologist Adam Alter of New York University and co-author of a Journal of Experimental Social Psychology study  says when something is easier to comprehend, “we come to like it more.”

Criminal by Name, Criminal by Nature

There’s another phenomenon showing a correlation between unpopular names and juvenile delinquency. Although seemingly absurd to most of us reading this, findings substantiate the possibility there’s a link between names and crime. The 2009 study at Shippensburg University found that, regardless of race, young people with non-trending and unusual names were more likely to engage in criminal activity. The findings do not show a cause – they merely show a link between the two things. However, what it does go to show is that names are powerful in ways we aren’t always cognizant of.


One of the smallest yet predominant units of transferable culture today are memes. According to Sprout Media, a meme is an image or video that uses humor to represent the thoughts and feelings of a specific audience. Enter Karen.

An internet sensation, Karen is a slang term used as an antagonistic female character widely across internet memes. According to Know Your Meme, “Karen” is generally characterized as an irritating, entitled woman, sometimes as an ex-wife and, more frequently, the woman (and haircut) that will ask to speak to the manager. Summed up, “Karen’s” objective is often disproportionate to the vigor with which she pursues it.

Karen as a meme’s origins are unclear. No one knows where exactly “Karen” as a negative began, but theories offer the ‘Oh My God, Karen, You Can’t Just Ask Someone Why They’re White’ meme from the movie Mean Girls. While others believe that the popularity of the name may come from the character Karen in the 1989 gangster film Goodfellas. This speaks to the possible connotation of a name in a much broader sense – for example, we don’t know how “Britney” came to be a name less hirable than “Emma.” But it also highlights the wide inability to control a word, or an attached idea, once it’s been released into the wild.

Karen isn’t the only name that has some negative connotations. Some names we particularly associate with age. For example, Betty and Bruce are consistently perceived as older than, say, Brittney and Brad according to a Leonard Newman study.

Like the Name, Like the Person

Pronunciation also guides our perceptions of people. The ease of pronouncing a name, or its fluency, can, in part, predict a person’s likability. A study, also by Adam Alter predicts a person’s perceived likability through use of name. In the study, he used the sample below listed from least fluent or hardest to pronounce, to most fluent or easiest to pronounce:

  1. Leszczynska
  2. Vougiouklakis
  3. Colquhoun
  4. Loughnane
  5. Mathieson
  6. MacDonaugh
  7. Kupka
  8. Jarvis
  9. Matson
  10. Sherman

The study concluded that a name’s pronounceability, regardless of length or apparent foreignness, mattered most in determining likability. Ease of pronunciation accounted for about 40 percent of off-the-cuff likability.

It doesn’t stop with human names. A study by Adam Alter looked at how pronounceability of company names affects their performance in the stock market. Stripped of all recognizable influences, they found companies with simpler names and ticker symbols traded better than the stocks of more difficult-to-pronounce companies.

In the Name of Fairness

While there’s no immediate solution for businesses that might have outlier names too difficult to pronounce, the good news is that it’s not the whole story for people with seemingly difficult names. Other stimuli flood the brains of those we end up talking with. The perfect example being Barack Hussein Obama, whose name has been at the center of some large and unfortunate controversies. So, whatever our names, they typically aren’t held against us after other data about us is available.

Human resource professionals need to be aware that there seems to be a clear bias in how people perceive names. When screening resumés for hiring, it may be prudent to leave names off.  We as social engineers should be aware that a unique name may go against us as we try to go unnoticed through a company.

Written by Maxie Reynolds