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Why we look like our names…or does this mean I look like a duck?

in Editor Pick/Media Psychology/Work Psychology by

For many of those who know me, I have had a bill for a mouth and a feathered complexion for many years. Let’s not be silly here. Aside from the u, c, and k following the letter d, there’s nothing about this name that reflects who I am. It’s just a name, right?

Wrong. According to the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, a person’s name may be more closely aligned to our physical appearance than you would think. In one study, when shown a photo and a list of possible names, participants seemed to be able to link the right name to the face more often than could be explained by chance.

Suddenly, all those moments you had when you were thinking, “He really looks like a Peter,” may have been right all along.

The specific mechanisms why we can do this are not entirely clear. However, when researchers were presented with unfamiliar names from other cultures, the effect vanished. The researchers suggest that the stereotypes and cultural norms about names establish mental “schemas” that people use to predict how a person looks.

In the absence of these schemas, there is no easy reference we can use to make accurate predictions.

One possible explanation is that we simply match the name to the face. That is, that little infant, Bob, looked like Uncle Robert when he first made his way into the world. This seems unlikely. First, many parents have a name selected well before the delivery day.

Second, we have all been in a situation where we hold off saying “her” or “him” when meeting an infant for the first time. Why? Usually, babies look very similar and even gender is difficult to differentiate during infancy. I can recall gazing lovingly at my first-born daughter in the hospital only to realise I was staring lovingly at some other baby.

This also explains why babies sometimes get sent home with the wrong parents. They don’t usually have pronounced facial features until much later. Did you ever take the wrong toddler home? No? What about the wrong spouse? Ok, let’s not discuss that one.

The findings from this study underscore the importance of social identity. Whilst many of our personal characteristics are strongly wired at birth through genetics, our social and cultural upbringing also shapes what we value and how we behave.

Fashion, for example, continually changes and influences how we dress, style our hair and groom ourselves.  As such, our outward appearance can reflect the expectation of society. Perhaps our names may subtly influence how we style our hair to conform with preconceived ideas of what a person with “that name’” looks like.

Interestingly, one of the key physical characteristics that we can change quite easily is hairstyle, and this was found to be a cue for name recognition. That is, when people accurately predicted a name, it was often based on matching the person’s identity with their chosen hairstyle. Participants did not realise this, of course, but the researchers could determine this based on measuring where participants were focusing their gaze.

I’ve often wondered what it would be like to be called “Nick Smith” or “Nick Jones”, something very different from the “Duck” surname. At school, it was a non-stop circus of quack, quack jokes and Donald/Daffy Duck references.

A name like “Duck” could be a curse if you always wanted to be taken seriously and if you wanted to blend in with everyone else. But it can be a strength if you value being different.

In adulthood, the jokes remain but I’ve learned to appreciate having a relatively silly and comical sounding name. People also seem to like pairing it with “Dr”. Perhaps the juxtaposition with such a formal title is pleasing for people.

A good name can also make you more endearing. There was that clip of Melbourne-based news reporter Amy Parks finally giving a news report from the Melbourne-based “AAMI Park”. This mere coincidence gained the reporter at lot of attention and social approval.  That clip currently sits on a couple of hundred thousand views on YouTube.

A name may not always be so harmless. There are apparently a lot of people sharing the names of notorious fictional serial killers (96 Norman Bates, 12 Jason Voorhees, and five Freddy Kruegers) in the United States. Is it a nice icebreaker to be called Norman Bates or something that would feel a bit creepy?

Interestingly, how much you like your name is also related to your self-esteem. Individuals who rate their name lower than others also tend to have lower self-esteem. Self-esteem is believed to be a gauge of social acceptance. That is, lower self-esteem indicates that we feel less accepted by our social groups than individuals with higher self-esteem. So, we now know that our names can tell us a lot about how we feel and behave. These things are intrinsically linked to fitting in.

Over the years, I’ve also accumulated a number of odd friends and colleagues. I sometimes wonder if my own experiences with my name have led me to look to other quirky individuals with a similar sense of humour, or strange peculiarities that make them black sheep–or black ducks–in their own right.

Have a think about your own name. Has it had any influence on your friends, colleagues, or career? Would a different name elevate your status in a job interview? Is it associated with a sense of pride or something you’d rather redefine?

Quack, quack, quack.

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