If Your Name is Dennis, You're More Likely to Become a Dentist

The strange science of how names shape careers

by Alice Robb | January 8, 2014

Can we blame Ron Paul’s political ambitions on his last name? Research suggests that people choose—or are unconsciously drawn to—careers that resemble their own names. The effect is stronger for women’s first names and men’s last names; psychologists hypothesize that women are less attached to their last names because they anticipate taking their husbands’.

In a 2002 paper in the journal Attitudes and Social Cognition, psychologists from the State University of New York at Buffalo, led by Brett Pelham, found that people’s first and last names may have an impact on the jobs they end up in, thanks to a phenomenon called “implicit egotism.” “The essential idea behind implicit egotism,” they write, “Is that people should prefer people, places, and things that they associate (unconsciously) with the self...peoples positive automatic associations about themselves may influence their feelings about almost anything that people associate with the self.”

For instance:

Research on the mere ownership effect shows that giving people objects such as pens or keychains causes people to evaluate these objects more favorably than they would otherwise…If people instantly acquire positive feelings about objects once these objects become part of the self, it stands to reason that people should develop deep and abiding affections for objects that are chronically associated with the self.

The "ownership effect" could apply to people's names, or even the individual letters in their names. Pelham investigated the implications of this bias on people's careers:

We began our assessment of career choices by focusing on whether peoples first names predicted whether they were dentists or lawyers.

We searched for dentists and lawyers by consulting the official Web pages of the American Dental Association (http://www.ada.org/directory/ dentistsearchform.html) and the American Bar Association (http://lawyers.martindale.com/aba).

We began this search by consulting 1990 census records. Using these records, we attempted to identify the four most common male and female first names that shared a minimum of their first three letters with the names of each of these two occupations.

The 16 names we generated in this fashion included the female names Denise, Dena, Denice, Denna, Laura, Lauren, Laurie, and Laverne and the male names Dennis, Denis, Denny, Denver, Lawrence, Larry, Lance, and Laurence. We expected that people with names such as Dennis or Denise would be overrepresented among dentists, and people with names such as Lawrence or Laura would be overrepresented among lawyers...We limited both searches to the eight most populous U.S. states (California, Florida, Illinois, Michigan, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Texas).

Their findings confirmed the implicit egotism theory:

Relative to female lawyers, female dentists were quite a bit more likely to have names that began with the letters “Den”…Though the results for men were also in the expected direction, they fell short of significance.

And in an even more convincing analysis:

We sampled dentists in all 50 U.S. states and assessed whether dentists were more likely than the average American to possess names such as Dennis, Denis, Denise, or Dena (the two most common male and female names in our lists).

We compared (a) the number of dentists with each of these four specific names with (b) the number of dentists who had the two European American names that were most similar in frequency to each of these specific names. For example, according to 1990 census records, the names Jerry, Dennis, and Walter respectively ranked 39th, 40th, and 41st in frequency for male first names. Taken together, the names Jerry and Walter have an average frequency of 0.416%, compared with a frequency of 0.415% for the name Dennis. Thus, if people named Dennis are more likely than people named Jerry or Walter to work as dentists, this would suggest that people named Dennis do, in fact, gravitate toward dentistry. This is the case. A nationwide search focusing on each of these specific first names revealed 482 dentists named Dennis, 257 dentists named Walter, and 270 dentists named Jerry.

Source URL: http://www.newrepublic.com//article/116140/psychologists-say-our-names-affect-what-careers-we-choose