Why Do People Look Like Their Names?

Have you ever successfully guessed a stranger's name or told someone they "look like an Anne"? It's strange how well some people match their names. That's not just a glitch in the Matrix: research shows that people really can match strangers' names to their faces above chance level. It may be because Anne's face changes in response to a lifetime of being, well, Anne.

A Rose By Any Other Name

For a 2017 paper published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, a French and Israeli research team performed eight experiments to test whether or not people could actually tell a stranger's name from their face. When the researchers showed volunteers a picture of a face and a choice of five names, the volunteers chose the correct name about 35 percent of the time. That might sound low, but it's actually pretty impressive. If the volunteers were choosing completely at random, they'd have a 20 percent chance of getting it right. That 35 percent result is what statisticians call statistically significant, which means it's unlikely to have been a result of random chance.

Plus, a computer could could do it too. They fed a machine-learning algorithm 100,000 profile photos with names from a French business social-media network to help it learn the features in a person's face that gave away their name — if there were any, that is. Once the algorithm had done its "learning," they gave it unlabeled profile photos and two names to choose from. The computer, too, matched faces to names above chance level, as often as 64 percent of the time. But it did the human volunteers one better: it created a "heat map" that told the researchers which facial features were the tell for each name. If your name is Anne, the underside of your nose is a dead giveaway. Alexis? It's all in your cheeks and crows' feet.

One caveat: this result is entirely cultural. When they asked French people to match Israeli names to faces and vice versa, the effect went away. That shows that there's something about our cultural perception of names at work here.

Each heat map represents the areas in the images that are important (red or “hot”) and unimportant (blue or “cold”) for accurate matching.

What's Really Going On?

There's been a lot of research showing that people tend to stereotype others based on their names. A 2001 study by UCLA psychologist Albert Mehrabian showed that, perhaps predictably, people tend to attribute more masculine and successful characteristics to men's names than women's names, but they also thought people with androgynous names were fun, people with less common names were neurotic, and people with "less conventionally spelled names" were less attractive.

The French and Israeli researchers suggest that these very stereotypes could be at work in their results. "The social attitude toward a first name, along with its continuous pressure on the person wearing that name, can influence the perception that the name-wearer has of themselves, and end up weighing on the development of their appearance," writes co-author Anne-Laure Sellier in The Conversation. "For instance, Allison may end up adopting a hairstyle, expressions or specific facial traits (eg. smile lines) consistent with the stereotype of an Allison that her cultural group has in mind. Likewise, your ethnicity, class, and other outward-facing factors can influence the name your parents give you, which offer more clues.

So if you're having a baby, choose their name wisely. "Whatever the first name you give to your child, he or she will end up wearing it," Sellier says. That said, you could name your sons "Winner" and "Loser" and the outcome could be the opposite of what you'd expect. Names are tricky that way.

What Does Your Name Say About You?

Key Facts In This Video

  1. A study found a correlation between boys with traditionally girls' names had more difficulties in school. 00:46

  2. Peoples' names are linked to social status and other societal aspirations. 01:46

  3. Names can have a psychological affect on one's self-perception and overall mental health. 02:08

Written by Curiosity Staff August 25, 2017

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