I’ve Just Met a Face

January 3, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

Each month, the Harvard Business Review has a feature called “Defend Your Research.” I confess, I am not a regular HBR reader, but as I was searching for something else, a serendipitous click whisked me to an episode of “Defend Your Research” that was about names, something I am interested in. The researcher, Anne-Laurier Sellier, had found that people look like their names. More specifically, people shown a photo of a stranger can make a better-than-chance guess as to what that person’s name is.(The HBR article is here.)

I was a tad skeptical. Hadn’t we been through something like this before with men named Dennis choosing to become dentists and women named Florence living in Florida? At least that research had a theory to explain the supposed connection — “implicit egotism” — even if the data turned out to be less than what met the researchers’ eye.* And now we have people named Charlotte choosing to look like a Charlotte?

Plausible or not, the empirical findings about faces and names were interesting, and I was curious to try my luck. Conveniently, Sellier had provided HBR two examples.

George, Scott, Adam, Bruce. Which could it be? “What if it's just that the other names on the list were rarer and less likely?” asks Scott Berinato, the HBR interviewer.

We controlled for that by offering only choices that were as popular as the actual name, based on the frequency of use. We controlled for most things we could think of, including ethnicity, name length, and the socioeconomic background of the subjects and of the people in the photos.

Any good researcher would control for these things. Everyone knows that. But “Bruce?” My spider sense suggested that the names Bruce and Scott are not really equivalent in popularity. To check, I went to the Social Security database on names.

The guy on the left looks like he’s about 40, the one on the right, early 30s. The HBR article came out in 2017. I guessed that the research was done a couple of years earlier. So I looked up the numbers for boy baby-names in 1975 for the older guy, 1983 for the younger. Here are the results.

And what are the answers to the name-that-face quiz? The man on the left is Scott. The man on the right is James. The correct name is two to three times more frequent than the second-most popular name on the list. It’s possible that Sellier’s subjects were putting together their estimate of the man’s age and their intuitive knowledge of name popularity. A better design might have been to show people four pictures of men roughly the same age and ask, “Which one is Scott?”

Maybe Sellier just picked the wrong examples to illustrate her point. After all, she says that she and her fellow researchers did this study in the US, France, and Israel and got positive results in all three countries. And they do have a theory — that people change their appearance so as to conform with the cultural stereotype of their name. “In America people presumably share a stereotype of what a Scott looks like. . . and Scotts want to fit that stereotype.”

I haven’t looked at Sellier’s publications. All I know is what I see in the HBR. Maybe, knowing that the HBR interviewer was named Scott, she picked a couple of photos — one Scott, one not-Scott — just for this occasion and selected Bruce and the other names on the spur of the moment. Still, I assume that a researcher being interviewed for a feature called “Defend Your Research” would bring examples that best illustrate her ideas. If this is the best she’s got, I’m afraid I remain unconvinced


* For more on Dennis the dentist, see this 2018 post by Andrew Gelman (here  and follow the links.

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