(By Marianne Stenger)
“Unfortunately, it’s not always possible to prevent biases from affecting someone’s better judgment, and this is particularly true with decisions that are made under pressure. In some cases, when we are multitasking or are under a high cognitive load, we might all be influenced by these biases, or have our judgments tainted by tangential information such as how easy it is to pronounce a name“.
If you have a name that others find difficult to pronounce, or even one that is just a little out of the ordinary, you’re probably all too familiar with the “I’m sorry, what?” comments that inevitably follow introductions.
But besides being a little bit annoying, surely your complicated name couldn’t have a negative effect on your professional standing.
Unfortunately, it can.
A 2012 study led by Eryn Newman from Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, shows that the easier your name is to pronounce, the more trustworthy people will assume you are. And the reverse is also true—the more complicated your name is, the more untrustworthy you will seem.
To determine this, the researchers gathered a few pairs of names from different regions around the world and asked participants to rate how risky a person was based solely on their name. People with names like “Yevgeni Dherzhinsky” or “Shobha Bhattacharya” were thought to be more dangerous or risky than those with more pronounceable names like “Putali Angami.”
In another experiment, the researchers paired true or false trivia statements like “Giraffes are the only mammals that cannot jump,” with either difficult or easy to pronounce names. When participants thought that a statement had been made by someone with an easier name, they were more likely to consider it true than when the statement had been paired with a difficult name.
The theory? Newman explains that when we encounter new information, how easy or difficult it is to process plays an important role in all sorts of situations. “From other research, we know that people think that food additives with easier names are safer than those with difficult names. So we don’t think it is a stereotype about foreign names,” Newman says.
“Instead, we think that the easy names just feel more familiar or easy to process than the difficult names. To the Fred Flintstone parts of our brains, that feeling of ease or familiarity signals something that we can trust, but information that’s difficult to process signals danger.”
This research aligns with previous studies, which have shown that people with more familiar names tend to be rated as more likeable, are preferred as mock election candidates, and hold higher positions. In other words, our hidden biases have the potential to affect many aspects of our daily lives, both professional and personal. “In the work force, it might affect which CVs out of a giant pile float to the top, and in the news or politics, certain messages may carry more weight if attributed to an easy name,” explains Newman.
One study in particular found that immigrants to the United States who had changed their names to better blend into their new environment—for example, by changing the Russian name “Artyom” to the more American-sounding “John”—fared better in the job market and achieved higher incomes than those who stuck with their own names.
What You Can Do About It
Many celebrities opt to change their names at the beginning of their careers—it’s certainly true that Carlos Irwin Estevez doesn’t role off the tongue in quite the same way Charlie Sheen does, and Demi Moore is undeniably easier to pronounce than Demetria Gene Guynes.
But what can you do, aside from changing your name entirely? For one, try using a middle name on your resume if it’s easier to pronounce. For instance, if your first name is “Guinevere” and your middle name is “Marie,” your resume might have a better chance of being picked if you leave your first name off.
Another study by University of Southampton and University of Limerick researchers found that people with a middle initial in their name are perceived as more intelligent, so even just including a middle initial could combat some of the negative effects of a complicated name.
If you don’t have a middle name (or it’s just as complicated) you could also opt to use a nickname on your resume. For example “Anastasiya” could be changed to “Anna,” and “Jónbjörn” might become “John.” Once you get to the interview, you can explain that you often use a nickname because people find your real name difficult to pronounce.
But more importantly, if you’re in a hiring position, try recognizing when you might have this bias yourself. Newman points out that we are most susceptible to these kinds of biases when we don’t have much knowledge about the topic or target we are judging, so one solution is to direct our attention to factual, diagnostic information, rather than a feeling when making these kinds of judgements.
For example, if you were trying to decide between two job applicants and found yourself preferring one of them even before you had examined all the available information, you could make a conscious effort to focus more on the facts and less on the name accompanying them.
Unfortunately, it’s not always possible to prevent biases from affecting someone’s better judgment, and this is particularly true with decisions that are made under pressure. “In some cases, when we are multitasking or are under a high cognitive load, we might all be influenced by these biases, or have our judgments tainted by tangential information such as how easy it is to pronounce a name,” notes Newman.
So if you’re not getting the callbacks you expected and can’t find a plausible explanation for it, know that it really might not be about you. Your name could be to blame.