March 2, 2017

If your name is Fred, do you look like a Fred? You might — and others might think so, too, according to researchers from Israel and France investigating the possibility that people’s appearance can be influenced by their given names.

In a series of studies led by Hebrew University of Jerusalem psychology Prof. Ruth Mayo and business PhD candidate Yonat Zwebner, researchers recruited hundreds of independent observers and showed them color headshots of complete strangers. Then they presented a list of names to the observers and asked them to choose the stranger’s real name based on his or her facial appearance.

As reported in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, the observers repeatedly beat the odds of correctly identifying a person’s name based on facial appearance alone.

For example, upon looking at the face of a man and considering four possible names — Jacob, Dan, Josef or Nathaniel — observers correctly chose “Dan” 38 percent of the time, significantly above the 25% chance level of a random guess. This effect held true even when the researchers controlled for age and ethnicity, implying that something more than simple socioeconomic cues is at work.

The researchers found that observers beat the odds of correctly guessing a person’s name even when they saw only the person’s hairstyle. This could imply that people unconsciously choose hairstyles that fit stereotypes associated with their names.

In one of the studies, the researchers found that even computers equipped with a learning algorithm were able to beat the odds when asked to choose the correct name for 94,000 different faces.

“Our research demonstrates that indeed people do look like their name,” said Mayo, a senior lecturer in the department of psychology. “Furthermore, we suggest this happens because of a process of self-fulfilling prophecy, as we become what other people expect us to become.”

Nicknames, other cultures skew results

While observers were good at matching faces to names in their own culture, they were not good at doing so in a foreign culture.

In one experiment conducted with students in both France and Israel, participants were given a mix of French and Israeli faces and names. The French students were better than random chance at matching only French names and faces and Israeli students were better at matching only Hebrew names and Israeli faces.

This supports the idea that name stereotypes are important when matching faces with names.

“We are familiar with such a process from other stereotypes, like ethnicity and gender where sometimes the stereotypical expectations of others affect who we become,” said Zwebner.

“Prior research has shown there are cultural stereotypes attached to names, including how someone should look. For instance, people are more likely to imagine a person named Bob to have a rounder face than a person named Tim. We believe these stereotypes can, over time, affect people’s facial appearance.”

Observers are less good at guessing the given name of people who use a nickname exclusively, suggesting that a person’s appearance is not affected by a name that is not used.

The findings point to the important role of social structuring in the complex interaction between self and society.

“A name is an external social factor, different from other social factors such as gender or ethnicity, therefore representing an ultimate social tag,” Mayo said. “The demonstration of our name being manifested in our facial appearance illustrates the great power that a social factor can have on our identity, potentially influencing even the way we look.”

Future research could examine the precise nature of the mechanism leading to the emergence of this face-name matching effect, for example how a person’s name matches his or her face at different stages of life. Another question worth exploring is why some people have a very high face-name match while others have a low match.

Collaborators in this research, partly funded by the HEC Foundation in Paris, included Anne-Laure Sellier from HEC Paris; Nir Rosenfeld of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem; and Jacob Goldenberg from the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) Herzliya and Columbia University in New York.

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Jason Harris

Jason Harris

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