Academic journal article Economic Inquiry

What's in a Name?

Academic journal article Economic Inquiry

What's in a Name?

Article excerpt


Recently, economists have turned to the analysis and impact of an individual's first name. (1) This article contributes to this literature by trying to answer two questions. First, does a person's name convey information about their background? Second, does a person's name have an impact on their long-run economic outcomes such as income, education, fertility, social standing, happiness, or prestige?

To date, a central question of the economic analysis of names has been on the impact of having an African American name (i.e., the "blackness" of a name). (2) More formally, these studies contrast the outcomes of an individual who has a "black" name with the outcomes of an individual who has a "white" name, where the presumed racial characteristics of a name can be inferred from the probability that an individual is of a certain race, conditional on having a particular name. In our data set, this would mean comparing the outcomes of otherwise similar individuals with a name like Mark (exclusively a white name in our data) with Marcus (exclusively a black name in our data) or comparing Alice (a white name) with Tanisha (a black name).

We extend this analysis in two ways. First, we analyze additional factors of a name including both pure linguistic factors (e.g., whether a name ends in an "oh" sound) and factors reflecting the pure societal standing of the name (e.g., such as a name's popularity). (3) These additional control variables for name characteristics can be thought of as control variables for other information that a name can convey, such as parental education and/or socioeconomic background more broadly. Second, by using a sample from the General Social Surveys (GSS), we analyze a broader set of both an individual's background and outcome variables than in the previous literature. Our central finding is that first name features are correlated with several economically relevant lifetime outcomes even after controlling for exogenous background factors.

The rest of the article proceeds as follows: Section II briefly reviews the existing literature. Section III presents our methodology and data, while Section IV provides our main findings. We conclude in Section V and include some suggestions for further work.


In a compelling paper, Bertrand and Mullainathan (2004) undertake a carefully controlled experimental study of the extent to which an African American first name affects one's job prospects. Constructing a set of synthetic resumes that differ based on whether the applicant has an African American name, the researchers send these synthetic resumes to actual job openings listed in the newspapers of a number of major cities. Importantly, they find that to receive one job interview, a resume with a black name needs to be sent to 15 openings. In contrast, to receive one job interview, a resume with a white name needs to be sent to only ten job openings. Furthermore, by using auxiliary information from birth certificates from Massachusetts that also list a mother's education, Bertrand and Mullainathan construct measures of expected maternal education level for each name in their sample. Their results imply that it is the racial information conveyed in the name and not the parental background factor signaled by the name (i.e., parental education) that potential employers are using as the basis to select between resumes. They conclude that this shows that racial discrimination is a factor in the job market.

A similar set of issues is addressed in another recent study by Fryer and Levitt (2004). They make both theoretical and empirical contributions to our understanding of the economic role of first names. With regard to the former, they outline four approaches to the economic analysis of first names: namely, ignorance, price theory model, a signaling model, and an identity model. The first model speaks for itself: it assumes that parents ignore or are unaware of any consequences of their child's first name. …

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