We’re more than just our names, of course, but our epithets might have an extraordinary effect on the way we grow and develop—and perhaps even an influence our careers. It’s a theory called nominative determinism, and the idea is fairly straightforward: Our names guide the paths we take in our lives.
It’s not hard to find (hilarious) anecdotal examples. Take this 1977 paper on urinary incontinence, authored by AJ Splatt and D. Weedon, or consider how prison reformer Frances Crook’s name is close to the Latin translation for “free the criminals.”
Think, for a moment, why a man named Les McBurney ended up working at a fire department. How about the fact that the fastest man in the world has the last name Bolt? Or that disgraced politician Anthony Weiner was [Editorial note: You don’t really need to read the rest of this sentence].
Those examples might not be completely coincidental. Sure, a rose by any other name might smell just as sweet, but humans aren’t roses. During our upbringing, we’re subjected to a wide range of social pressures that help to set the course of our lives—and things like names can be extraordinarily important.
We decided to look into the science. First, though, if we’re writing about the importance of names, we’ve got to look at the origin of terms like “nominative determinism,” right?
The term “nominative determinism” goes back to 1994.
That’s when the editors of the journal New Scientist detailed a few unusual occurrences in the publication’s “Feedback” section: “We recently came across a new book, Pole Positions: The Polar Regions and the Future of the Planet, by Daniel Snowman,” the editors wrote.
Several weeks later, they received London Under London: A Subterranean Guide, by Richard Trench. As other examples poured in, the editors decided to open up the subject to their audience.
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“You are invited to send in examples of the phenomenon in the fields of science and technology (with references that check out, please) together with any hypotheses you may have on how it comes about,” they wrote. “No prizes, other than seeing your name in print and knowing you have contributed to the advance of human knowledge.”
The subject was enormously popular, to the point that New Scientist was forced to ask readers to stop sending in examples. Unfortunately, the experiment didn’t really lead to any significant advancements in human knowledge, but one reader did coin the scientific-sounding phrase “nominative determinism” along the way.
For obvious reasons, much of the discussion revolved around the most extreme cases. The obvious question: Can a bizarre name really compel someone to take up a certain type of work?
Perhaps. Just ask Sue Yoo, who is, of course, an attorney.
“When I was younger, people always said ‘Oh my god, that’s your name, you should totally become a lawyer,'” Yoo told Rachel Emma Silverman of The Wall Street Journal in 2011. “Psychologically, that helped me decide to go in that direction.”
In individual cases, the phenomenon is pretty easy to track.
Yoo felt that her name influenced her path, while attorney James Counsell (link opens a PDF) said he wanted to practice law from an early age. Even so, he conceded that his name might have had some small effect.
“I remember as a child, people saying to me in effect, ‘Of course you are going to be a barrister because of your name,’” he told legal magazine 5RB in 2009. “How much is down to the subconscious is difficult to say, but the fact that your name is similar may be a reason for showing more interest in a profession than you might [have] otherwise.”
Those are individual cases, of course; what about larger segments of the population? While the research on the subject is somewhat limited, one 2013 study found an interesting conclusion: “… people with the surname ‘Doctor’ were more likely to be doctors than lawyers, whereas those with the surname ‘Lawyer’ were more likely to be lawyers.”
The same study also found another strange effect: “[We] found that the initial letters of physicians’ last names were significantly related to their subspecialty, for example, Raymonds were more likely to be radiologists than dermatologists.” If that’s true, we feel bad for any kid named Proctor.
While the results of the study seem pretty dramatic. There are contributing factors to consider. For starters, the original purpose of surnames was to describe professions; in the Middle Ages, if your last name was Baker, there was a pretty good chance that you knew how to make a pretty good loaf of bread. If your name was Faulkner, you likely raised falcons, and if your surname was Weiner, you…made wine (get your mind out of the gutter).
For many of us, our names indicate our heritage, and some people might be predisposed towards following in their family members’ footsteps. Counsell, for instance, comes from a family with several other lawyers; the fact that his father practiced law probably had much more of an influence on the younger Counsell’s career path than passing comments about his last name.
Still, some researchers believe that nominative determinism is an occasionally potent force—perhaps strong enough to influence our health.
Stay with us here, because this gets weird.
One study suggests that names can affect our chances of developing certain medical issues.
The 2013 study looked at whether people with the last name Brady are more likely to experience bradycardia (a condition characterized by abnormally slow heart action). Researchers used names listed in an online telephone directory, which they referenced with lists of patients who’d had pacemakers installed.
Presumably, it was a slow day at the cardiology research center. In any case, the results were compelling.
“Patients named Brady are at increased risk of needing pacemaker implantation compared with the general population,” the study’s authors concluded. “This finding shows a potential role for nominative determinism in health.”
However, responses to the paper noted possible confirmation bias, as well as other factors that might have influenced the results.
“It is plausible that the Brady bunch’s surname might have alerted caregivers to suspect the existence of an asymptomatic and lethal arrhythmia and to further investigate and closely follow these patients,” wrote general practitioner Adam Dalal in 2013, right before he wrote our favorite two sentences in this article.
“This, in turn, has improved the chances of the Bradys to survive and breed. The process of the ‘survival of the Bradys’ has thus contributed to the study’s results.”
Other letters to the editor had similar fun with the Brady surname, although we’re a bit disappointed that none of them mentioned Marsha.
Still, many scientists and clinicians treat nominative determinism skeptically.
The theory assumes that our lives change in response to our names, ignoring the very real possibility that, in some cases, we adjust our names to fit our lives. Besides, most of us don’t have names that directly correspond to a certain career—are we also affected by some subtler form of nominative determinism?
Sharon Saline, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist who specializes in mental health issues that affect children and teens, believes childhood development isn’t significantly influenced by naming, except in obvious ways.
“Most kids don’t talk about their name unless they don’t like it,” she tells Urbo. “When they don’t like their name, they really don’t like their name. They don’t feel like it fits who they are. They don’t feel like it reflects the image of themselves that they want to put out into the world.”
When that’s the case, adolescents are perfectly capable of changing or modifying their names on their own. A person who goes by Kate, for example, might switch to Katelyn in her late teens in an effort to appear more adult. In a sense, that’s sort of the reverse of nominative determinism—and according to Saline, the more common outcome.
“I really don’t think a child’s name affects their development,” Saline says. “I think a child’s name affects how they present themselves and perhaps how they’re perceived in the world. …When parents choose names, they choose names that honor their ethnic heritage or because certain names matter to them. They’re not going to think about what the effects of that are going to be on their child.”
We’d like to note that saline is a common solution used in medicine, and our source here chose to go into a health-related field. Granted, it’d be a lot funnier if she was a surgeon, but we’ll take what we can get.
The takeaway, of course, is that the effects of nominative determinism are likely subtle. If your last name is Baker, your friends might joke with you about your love of pastries, which might compel you to eventually open a bakery—but if you’re not particularly attracted to that field, you won’t find yourself drawn unwillingly into cookery by the dark forces of nominative determinism.
Still, over a large enough population, subtle forces like nominative determinism can certainly have some sort of influence. Just ask Barth Toothman (a dentist), or Sara Blizzard (meteorologist). Or, for a more clinical analysis, ask a neurologist—we’d recommend Lord Brain.