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People make personality judgments based on the sounds of their names, study finds

The reason we do this has to do with something known in linguistics as sound symbolism, the way humans associate certain vocal sounds with particular characteristics.

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

We tend to ascribe certain personality traits to people we haven’t yet met based solely on the sounds of their first name, according to a Canadian study published recently in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.

We associate softer-sounding names, such as Anne or Owen, with agreeableness, for example, and harder-sound ones, such as Etta and Kirk, with extroversion.

Needless to say, these associations have nothing to do with people’s actual personalities.  As the study also found, Annes are not likely to be any more congenial than Ettas. Nor are Kirks more likely to be outgoing than Owens.

We just think they are — if all we know about them is their name.

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The reason we do this has to do with something known in linguistics as sound symbolism, the way humans associate certain vocal sounds with particular characteristics.

This effect was first reported in 1929. In a classic experiment that has subsequently been repeated worldwide, psychologist Wolfgang Kohler found that when he showed people a jagged and a rounded shape and asked which one was called “maluma” and which one was called “takete” (both made-up words), the people overwhelmingly — well over 90 percent of them — associated “takete” with the jagged shape and “maluma” with the rounded one.

“Something about the sounds in these words (or maybe even how they feel as you say them) makes them seem to go along better with the round or the jagged shape,” explain two of the authors of the current study, psychologist Penny Pexman and Ph.D. candidate David Sidhu of the University of Calgary, in an article they wrote about their research for The Conversation.

“There have also been demonstrations of certain language sounds seeming like better fits for shapes of certain sizes, colours and even those travelling at certain speeds,” the researchers add.

A series of experiments

Pexman, Sidhu and their colleagues wanted to find out if the sounds in a person’s name elicited certain expectations about that person — specifically, whether people associate the sounds in names with different personality traits. To do that, they conducted a series of separate experiments.

In two of the experiments, they presented groups of 60 undergraduate students with 72 names (36 male, 36 female) selected from a 2014 list of registered baby names in Alberta, Canada. Half of the names for each gender contained at least one “sonorant” consonant (such as m, l or n), while the other half contained at least one “voiceless top consonant” (such as k, t or p).

“These are very different kinds of sounds,” explain Pexman and Sidhu, “and so we asked if names containing these different sounds would be associated with different personalities.”

The undergraduates were given six personality factors to consider: Honesty/Humility, Emotionality, Extroversion, Agreeableness, Conscientiousness and Openness. In one experiment, the names were presented individually; in the other, they were presented in pairs.

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“In general, we found that participants expected people with names like ‘Anne’ or ‘Owen’ to be high in Agreeableness, Emotionality and Conscientiousness,” the researchers report. “Conversely, they expected people with names like ‘Kate’ or ‘Kirk’ to be high in Extroversion.”

To ensure that the sounds in the names, not the names themselves, had produced these results, the researchers repeated the experiments using 72 invented names, such as Ammel and Nilo (sonorant names) and Seka and Treek (voiceless stop names).

The results were the same.

The researchers also found that sonorant names tend to be considered more likeable than voiceless stop names — but only when the names are real ones.

Not a determinant of personality

Curious to know if these personality associations had any validity in the real world  (“are people with sonorants in their names actually kinder than people with voiceless stops in their names?”) Pexman, Sidhu and their colleagues conducted yet another experiment.

They asked more than 1,000 people to complete online personality surveys, and then looked to see if the results of those surveys correlated in any way with the dominant sounds in their names.

“This sounds outlandish, but there is recent work showing that individuals might change their appearance over time to look like their names,” write Paxmen and Sidhu. “Might it also work for their personalities?”

The answer from the survey experiment is “a resounding ‘no,” the researchers report. “None of the associations that we observed in our experiments existed in the real world.”

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Why we make the connection

Why do we judge certain names to be more agreeable or more outgoing?

“The maluma/takete effect is often explained by a sort of metaphorical extension of the qualities of the sounds or feelings of the words to the shapes,” Paxmen and Sidhu explain. “’Maluma’ feels softer than ‘takete’ as you say it, and it also involves less abrupt changes in sound.”

“Some researchers have suggested that something similar may be happening when sound is matched with personality,” they add. “Maybe the smoothness of sonorants metaphorically matches an agreeable personality, while the quick changes in voiceless stops match the energetic nature of an extroverted personality. We’ll need more research to know for sure.”

Does this matter in the real world? Unfortunately, it might.

“There are everyday situations in which individuals are judged based on very little besides their name: for instance, in online communication” and on résumé evaluations,” Paymen and Sidhu point out.

FMI:  You’ll find the study on the website for the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.