Do our Names Shape our Lives?

There are countless well-known examples of nominative determination in modern-day culture. Usain Bolt, Tiger Woods, Scott Speed, Mary Berry, and Tom Hanks’ sons named Colin and Chet.

The name Colin means “victory.” Colin Hanks is an American actor, producer, and director who looks like he’s won the game of life. The name Chet, on the other hand, is a shortened form of the name Chester which means “camp of soldiers.” Chet Hank sports a number of tribal tattoos and has described himself as the black sheep of the family due to his struggles with substance abuse.

The cocktail party effect is the phenomenon of the brain’s ability to focus one’s auditory attention on a particular stimulus while filtering out a range of other stimuli. For example, most of us have the uncanny ability to hear our own name above the noise of a busy party despite a loud humming of conversation. That is because our own name is more than just a word or sound – it’s a stimulus, trigger and determining factor of our core identity.

Because the link between name letters and our core identity is relatively arbitrary, we are able to associate ourselves with both positive and negative targets that share our letters. A University of Michigan study explored this concept within the context of major hurricane disasters. Researchers found that people who shared the initial with the hurricane name were overrepresented among relief donors. For example, people with names similar to ‘Katrina’ were far more likely to donate to Hurricane Katrina relief efforts.

In 2007, psychologists Leif Nelson and Joseph Simmons analyzed almost a century of baseball strikeouts and found that hitters with the initial K had a higher strikeout rate. They also found that college students with the initials C and D had a slightly lower grade point average than students with the initials A and B, and A and B applicants to law school were more likely to go to attend better universities.

Now, I know there are two camps of folks reading this. There are those who find this interesting and fun – a gentle poke at a mental sweet spot wondering if all of these examples are coincidence or if there could be an invisible force at work here. Then there are those who are grimacing and maybe even cursing at me through their devices that this is all bunk – not science. That correlation is not causation and that every study out there is not automatically a contribution to science. If you are one of those people, then you’re not alone. But, before you get all twisted up, we do have empirical data that does show how others perceive us – through our appearance, education, and, yes, even our names – affects our lives. Perhaps we need more research about nominative determinism and implicit egotism. Until then, if it makes you think just a little and provokes an inspired conversation, that’s a win.


Melissa Hughes, Ph.D.
Melissa Hughes, Ph.D.
Dr. Melissa Hughes is a neuroscience geek, keynote speaker, and author. Her latest book, Happier Hour with Einstein: Another Round explores fascinating research about how the brain works and how to make it work better for greater happiness, well-being, and success. Having worked with learners from the classroom to the boardroom, she incorporates brain-based research, humor, and practical strategies to illuminate the powerful forces that influence how we think, learn, communicate and collaborate. Through a practical application of neuroscience in our everyday lives, Melissa shares productive ways to harness the skills, innovation and creativity within each of us in order to contribute the intellectual capital that empowers organizations to succeed with social, financial and cultural health.

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  1. Well, I am definitely in this camp: “interesting and fun.” As I was reading your piece, I was, of course, wondering about “Jeff” and “Ikler” and “JMI.” Is “JMI” really “Jimmy,” and if so, what does that mean? Is “I” really about “me,” and does that mean I tend to focus on myself? My God, am I a narcissist??? Or is “I” really”eye”? Or does this all just simply verify my StrengthFinder report that “context” is my #1 strength?

    Isn’t this interesting and fun? Thanks for a nice wake-up read!