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What’s in a name?

Picking a name for someone or something can be a daunting task. I have never had to name a newborn baby (though I’ve witnessed lots of people go through that process). But I am often involved in the naming of new buildings. Sometimes that process involves sitting in a room with a list of possible names in front of you, and having to decide which one is optimal. I don’t love this approach. Nowadays, I find it’s better to have the name naturally emerge early on in the development process, well before there’s an actual brand and identity for the project. You want it to accurately embody the vision for the project, the site’s history and context, and you want to know that it has some durability over time. Or at least, that’s the goal.

On a related note, the New Yorker recently published an interesting piece on why your name matters. In the middle of the 20th century, research suggested that our chosen names were hugely impactful to life outcomes, and that more typical names were better than unusual ones. The theory was something known as the implicit-egotism effect, which basically states that we like things, including names, that most resemble ourselves. We want familiar. Which to me, immediately suggests that this effect must depend on cultural context. What is considered “typical” obviously changes depending on where you are in the world.

Our thinking has advanced since then. More recently we have found that it’s not the name itself that creates the better life outcomes. Because if you control for a child’s background and upbringing, any sort of name effect seems to disappear. However, names do in fact signal who we are. They imply certain things. Many of us have heard about the studies that use resumes with different names to test how people respond. Names just aren’t inherently deterministic. You probably aren’t more likely to become a doctor simply because of your name.

Although, I’m not sure that takes much of the pressure off of picking the right one.

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