Sociology for Psychics

November 23, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

I knew it was the ecological fallacy – using aggregate data to draw conclusions about individuals – but I took a shot. And even though I got a bull’s eye, more or less, the effect wasn’t what I’d hoped for. Here’s the story – sociological knowledge in action.

I wanted to make a change in my phone account, so I tried the “chat with one of our representatives online” option.

My chat window correspondent typed, by way of introduction, that she was Wendy M. Now Wendy was a name I hadn’t heard for a while. So as we were waiting for the system to register the changes I’d requested and that she was entering, I opened another window and looked for Wendy at to the Census site on baby names.

The name Wendy had peaked in popularity in from 1969 to 1972, climbing as high as 28th place.
I asked her if Wendy was her real name or if perhaps she was really in Bangalore and Wendy was merely her nom de screen.

No, she assured me, she was Wendy, and she was in Georgia.

I guessed that the Georgia curve for Wendy might have lagged the national average by a year or two. So I said,
Me: OK, are you 37 years old?
Wendy: I’m 36.
And that was all. Not, “Wow, very close!” not “How did you know?” I thought she would be stunned – after all, the only cues I had were typed words in a chat window, no picture, no voice – and I had come within a few months of her precise age. But Wendy seemed utterly unimpressed with my psychic powers – far less than I had been. So I didn’t bother asking her about her school friends Jennifer, Kimberly, and Michelle.

(Previous posts about names here, here, and here.)


andrewska said...

I would've been astonished.

Gets me wondering ...
What name is most year-predictable? What name is least year-predictable?

Wendy had about a ten year window of real popularity. Likewise, if you name is Kobe, you were born since 1997. Very predictable.

Even more common names can be somewhat predictable (e.g., the older you are, the more likely it is that your name is John). Still, given John's ongoing popularity, it would be much more difficult to predict the age of a John.

Another way of phrasing the question, would be, what are the most timeless names?

Jay Livingston said...

Andy: As you probably guessed, fashions in girls' names change more quickly than those for boys. The distribution for girls is also broader -- the top ten names account for a smaller percent of the total. For both sexes, variety and volatility are increasing. Florence stayed in the top 20 for four decades, maybe more (no data prior to the 1880s). Lisa was there for only 23 years. Where have all the Florences gone, long time passing?

I think Baptiste Coulmont, who studies names in France (he also studies sex shops there) has some data showing that the faster they rise in popularity, the faster they fall (the names, not the sex shops). A name that shoots up to the top of the charts in a few years, like Madison, will soon fade. Check out the baby-name wizard which converts the census data to graphs.

Todd Krohn said...

Carnac, you are quite wise. One look at my 1960's-era surfer dude name and voila. Let's hope the students don't get wise.

trrish said...

I read that J.M. Barrie nearly invented the name "Wendy" in "Peter Pan", in that it had not been used much before his book. I notice that the Disney film though originally released in 1953, was released in these years - 1958, 1969, 1976, 1982 and 1989.