What’s in a Name?: How Our Perception of Names Translated into Our Perception of People

As a cashier at a large local grocery store with a name spelled a little different than how people are used to, people somehow have the audacity to comment on my name tag. My name is Rebekah, not Rebecca. And somehow, that is unfathomable to some.

“Your parents don’t know how to spell.”

“Oh no! The store spelled your name wrong!”

“Thanks, Rebekah with a K”

But while the snarky comments about my name are just a little bit bothersome, sometimes names can create even stronger conflicts. Aware or unbeknownst to some employers, their own subconscious bias can influence their decision to hire or even interview qualified candidates that may have a name that does not register as “Caucasian”. In a popular experiment done by Buzzfeed, one job candidate, José, submitted two identical applications into several different job postings. The only difference in the applications was that on one he put down his given name, José, and on the other he put down the name, Joe. To his shock and utter dismay, the applications under the name “Joe” had way more success at landing an interview than under “José”, even though both candidates were equally qualified.

This situation is not unique. In fact, a study done by Dr. Colin Holbrook at UCLA, surveyed 1,500 white individuals and had them listen to several stories with the same theme. However, the stories would alternate between having “Black sounding” names and stereo typically white names. He found that in the stories with Black characters, the white people used in the experiment found them less appealing, and even threatening. Despite the stories having no clues as to what the character looked like, people were making judgement based on their name.

The information gathered from these studies poses several interesting questions on how we can unravel this system of name-based discrimination. I definitely don’t think that the solution should be for parents to choose “white sounding” names instead of unique names that may be symbolic of their culture or something they came up with themselves to give to their child. A name carries a lot of weight, and people should not feel obligated to choose a name for their child based on whether or not they can get a job in the future. Perhaps companies need to only allow recruiters to access the resume, without the name, when they are first looking over applications. This would allow them to better focus on the content of the application by removing any unconscious bias. Having the recruiting team go through diversity awareness training could also by beneficial.

Until next post,



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