science | June 02, 2013

What's In A Name? Science Speaker Adam Alter In The New Yorker

William Shakespeare's Juliet, from Romeo & Juliet, famously asked "What's in a name?" While she hypothesized that a "rose by any other name would still smell as sweet," science speaker Adam Alter has documented numerous studies showing that different names actually can change how we perceive an event, an object, or a person. "Arbitrary linguistic traits have an outsized influence on our thoughts and actions," he writes in The New Yorker. "These studies suggest a sort of linguistic Heisenberg principle: as soon as you label a concept, you change how people perceive it." As it turns out, there's a lot more to a name than we might think.

In the article, Alter expands on some of the case studies on names that he covered in his popular new book, Drunk Tank Pink. One study he writes about looked at whether female lawyers in South Carolina were more likely to become judges if their names were "masculine."  As Alter documents, women with names like Kerry or Jody (which are not strictly female names) became judges more often than their colleagues with more feminine names. When it comes to the way we describe events, the wording we use can impact our memories, Alter also found. For example, saying two cars "contacted" each other versus saying they "smashed" into one another can change an eye-witnesses recollection of the incident. The word "smashed" conveys more aggression, leading witnesses to recall the vehicles as moving faster than they were and causing more damage than they did. "If a single word can change how people remember an event they witnessed only minutes earlier, there isn’t much hope for eyewitnesses who recall, often months or years later, events experienced under stressful, distracted conditions," Alter cautions.

That's why it's crucial to understand how these forces in our environment shape our behavior. As Alter explains, being wary of the word choices you make, or the way you react to certain words, can impact both the outcome of an event and the way you feel about it. That's not to say, however, that these effects are set in stone. Someone who has a name that is difficult to pronounce is not guaranteed to be less successful than someone whose name is more fluent, for example. "The effects are subtle, people with non-fluent names succeed all the time, and norms change," Alter writes. "After three decades of fluently named Presidents—a Ronald, two Georges, and a Bill—Barack Obama ascended to the Presidency. Five years later, 'Barack' has become one of the easiest-to-pronounce names in the country." In his talks, Alter shows his audiences how to navigate these unexpected forces to live a happier, and more cognitively healthy life.

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