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Interviewees: Cecilia Crowhurst, Mom of Frederick William
Popularity versus Persistence
Nothing identifies us more than our name, and with a definite deadline, so many names to choose from, and usually just one baby to name at a time, it’s no surprise that our parents often agonize over the choice. All of the moms we met at a recent playgroup meeting of the Hudson River Park Mother’s Group described naming baby as a tough decision fraught with lists, negotiations, potential career considerations, and the all-important question of what it might be shortened to.
But one of the most important considerations that everyone agreed on is avoiding names that seem too popular.
"It’s my worst fear that this is going to be a faddish name," said Jami Weiner, mom of Blake Elizabeth. "We didn’t want anything on the top 100 list. You don’t want to be in a class with 15 Emily’s. Hopefully, we’ll escape that, but you never know."
Now new research into how popular baby names catch on and die out could inspire not only expecting parents, but also anyone seeking enduring popularity for a brand or product.
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Marketing researcher Jonah Berger of The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and Gael Le Mens of Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business used baby name statistics to study why some cultural tastes persist while others are a flash in the pan.
But he says it’s just as important and interesting to understand the flipside—how trends tire and fashions fade.
"I think there’s a lot of interest in why things catch on and become popular. Why certain songs are on the radio, why certain music artists are popular, why certain baby names are popular," Berger explains. "We understand a lot less about why things that were once popular die out and become abandoned. So, why things that people did like they no longer like. So this research begins to look at why people get rid of things that were once popular."
Berger looked at social security administration records of the most popular names dating back to 1880 in the United States, as well as similar data from France.
"I wish I could say we chose baby names because we like babies–and we do like babies! — but it’s actually great data," Berger says "So, we needed data on a host of different things across a long time series, being able to watch them become popular and die out. And there’s just not that much data around that’s like that. So baby names is very good because there’s rich data around the number of people that give a given name to their child every year… so we know what names are becoming more popular throughout the years, and the names becoming less popular.
He consistently found that the quicker a name caught on, the quicker it faded, while names that caught on slower stuck around.
"It’s definitely the case that names that get too popular aren’t likely to persist. Even controlling for that, though, things that become more popular too quickly, that catch on very rapidly as opposed to slowly, are more likely to die out faster," he says. "So, take a name like Kristi for instance, that catches on a lot faster than a name like Charlene. That name is much less likely to persist over time, less likely to have a long life cycle."
As Berger and his colleagues wrote in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, they then surveyed 650 sets of expecting parents. The survey presented "a whole list of baby names and said, ‘Hey how likely would you give each of these names to your child?’ And what we did was looked at their answers and saw where they were related to actual baby names," says Berger. The researchers found that names that had caught on quickly in the previous five years were less likely to be chosen by parents, confirming their initial finding.
But they also asked the parents about their perceptions of the names’ popularity, and their feelings about fads. They found that the perception of a name as faddish was a self-fulfilling prophecy.
"There’s no reason that things that catch on faster have to die out more quickly," Berger says. "If anything, it could persist just as long as something that catches on slowly. But what this research shows is that if something catches on quickly, that changes the way people see that thing, perceive that thing, and that may actually lead it to die out more quickly, even though there’s no reason it has to otherwise."
Babies to Brands
Berger says while baby names have the most reliable records, he’s also found signs of this effect in the music world, and suspects it can be generalized to many other cultural tastes– but only those that reflect our identities, like names, clothing or cars– not functional products like dish soap or appliances.
"The clothes we wear, the cars we drive, names we give our children– those are really things that express who we are to others. What it says about our identity to adopt that name or that brand of shirt or drive that brand of car," he says. "These are the domains of life in which we would expect to see these effects."
He points out that in the world of marketing, his finding is counterintuitive and potentially useful.
"We often think of things catching on faster being a good thing. But in fact, our research shows the exact opposite. In fact, if something catches on too quickly, not only will it die out faster but we also show it’s less successful overall. Catching on too quickly may actually be a bad thing and instead we want to shepherd the flow of new adoptees not to be slow, but not to be too quick either. So, a consistent flow of people would be a good thing in the long run because it will help our thing, whether it’s a movie or a website, be more likely to persist over time," he adds.
To check out where your name stands, the SSA’s Baby Name site offers a bunch of different ways to search and list popular baby names over the years.
But whatever your name is, odds are it has come to suit you. "People always say, ‘what a pretty name,’" says Rebecca X of her daughter Isabel’s name. "But I’m sure they say that about every name."
This research was published in PNAS Early online edition for the week of May 4 - 8, 2009, and was funded by the Stanford GSB Interdisciplinary Behavioral Research Fund.
Elsewhere on the Web:
"The BadFads Museum" -reminisce over your favorite faded fad
Most Popular Pet Names -from babynames.com
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