The Baby Name Stroop Test
What makes a person's name easy or hard to remember?
Common, classic names are ingrained in our name vocabulary, but might get lost in a crowd in our minds. Unusual names stand out, but they're unfamiliar and lack memory hooks to our past experiences.
Perhaps the name itself isn't the only key to memorability. After all, learning a name really means learning a match between a name and an individual. If you've ever met a guy and thought "Huh, he doesn't look like a 'Kyle,'" you know that some matches feel more natural than others. Does a match that messes with our expectations make the name harder to learn?
Perceptual psychologists have a classic demonstration of mismatches that mess us up. It's called the "Stroop Effect." To see it in action, try reading these two groups of words aloud, fast:
If you have normal color vision, you should find group A slower going. Your perception of the colors interferes with your reading of the words. Interference can operate on memory and learning, too. For instance, a longtime Mac user may find it harder to learn Windows keyboard commands, because the old knowledge interferes with the new.
We all have deep domain knowledge about names: the lifetime of experience that tells us that a Linda is probably older than an Addyson, and a Craig is probably maler than a Melissa. Could there be a "baby name Stroop effect," in which a mental image of all the older Lindas you know interferes with your ability to match the name Linda to a young girl?
Try it out and see. Imagine meeting the two groups of people below. Do you think it would take you more time or effort to learn the names of one of these sets?
I suspect that a controlled study would find that name pairings like Set 2 take longer to learn. (It's a testable hypothesis, at least! Face recognition researchers who use names in their experiments tend to choose the names rather cavalierly. Senior thesis hunters, don't say I never gave you anything.)
I'm not suggesting that everyone should choose names that conform perfectly to others' preconceptions for convenience. On the contrary, a "surprise factor" can be a name's calling card -- and shaking up our mental models of social roles can be a good thing. But if you do choose a name that switches up expectations, be patient. As the Baby Name Stroop Test shows, it might take us a while.