March 12, 2010

What qualities does your name bring to mind?

Namipedia has a neat feature that allows the readers of a name's page to rate the name based on how smart, sexy, friendly, creative, strong, young, and sophisticated it sounds. To see how a name measures up, just type it into their search bar, and in the "Does X sound..." box click on "View all ratings."

Out of curiosity I looked up my own name and was flattered to learn how pleasantly the voters perceive it. Then on a hunch I looked up a bunch of other, obviously low-scoring names to see what the judgment was. To my surprise, every name gets at least a middle-of-the-scale rating on every variable, often much higher than they deserve.

The most objective way to show this is to look at the "young" rating of names that belong to very old people. (Namipedia also shows, off to the right, the rise and fall of that name's popularity over time, in case you're unsure.) Rose, Agnes, Beatrice, Ethyl, and Edith score no lower than the middle in the "young" variable, even though those names haven't been at all popular for roughly 100 years. Maybe there's some really horrific-sounding name that I couldn't think of, but generally everyone gets a favorable rating on everything. What gives?

If you read my post on why online comments are so negative while online product reviews are so positive, you already know the answer. This is just another example of an anonymous online rating that shows only high average scores. To reiterate the take-home message from before, critics inclined to leave negative reviews will silence themselves online because they expect their audience not to have experienced the target of their harsh words. When the audience doesn't know the back-story to a severe punishment, they reflexively side with the punished rather than the punisher -- "Hey, maybe it's not that great, I don't know, but it seems like you're being unfair." Faced with that lack of sympathy from the audience, and imagining their disapproving looks, negative reviewers will keep quiet. As Adam Smith put it: "Compared with the contempt of mankind, all other external evils are easily supported."

That changes when it's the comments section of a blog since the audience does know the back-story, as they too have read the post being commented on.

With the name ratings, what's really being rated is the group of people with that name. Raters are not divorcing the name from those who bear that name -- it's too hard for most people to do -- but thinking to themselves, "How smart are people named Raylene?" or "How sexy are people named Bert?" The typical audience member has had no contact with people named Raylene or Bert, certainly not at a level that would allow them to know how fair or unfair the judgments of the rater were. Therefore the rater, even if inclined to give a harsh grade -- like Agatha doesn't sound young at all -- will either keep quiet or give a much higher score than he'd want to. He expects that the audience would side with the poor Raylenes, from the "innocent until proven guilty" principle, and he doesn't even have the chance to prove their guilt. Picturing that entirely unsympathetic audience, he decides it isn't worth giving a low score.


  1. Basil Rancid3/12/10, 4:47 PM

    A more straightforward explanation might be that the only people likely to seek out a name and vote on it are people with that name. I looked up my name, voted it as excellent on all counts, observed that others thought so, too, and will not return to the site.

  2. I read a book with the same theme...was telling a colleague about it while waiting for a flight on a business trip...

    ME: Can't remember what the worst male name was, but the absolute worst female name in terms of its connotations was "Bertha."

    ELDERLY LADY: I quite agree with you. That's my name, and it has been a burden to me all my life.

  3. "A more straightforward explanation might be that the only people likely to seek out a name and vote on it are people with that name."

    Nah, people who go there look up lots of names. If only (or mostly) people with the particular name looked it up, their scores would all be very high and uniform. Instead, they're just a lot higher than they should be -- not necessarily at the high end, perhaps just at the middle when it should be low.

    And there's decent variation among the scores: some are middle, some are high, some are middle-high, even for the same name.

    Also, this is an ad hoc explanation, so it doesn't account for all of the other cases that the "audience sympathy" account does.


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