The Baby Name Stroop Test

Feb 19th 2014

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.


February 19, 2014 4:17 PM

The only name/face that seems way off to me in the second group is Kayden - Joan a distant second.  I think it would actually be easier for me to remember those names because they're so incongruous and therefore interesting.  That's speaking as a name nerd, though - it could be pretty different to someone who is processing names in a more subconscious way.

February 19, 2014 8:13 PM

@Camilla - Like you, from the faces in the second group, Kayden is the only one that is egregiously "off" to me (since the name is a very modern one the chances of someone his age having the name from birth are extremely low). The others, while maybe a bit unexpected for the person's generation/race/ethnicity/religion, don't sound totally out-of-place with those faces.

February 19, 2014 9:08 PM

Laura, you have the Stroop test slightly wrong. The task is not to read the word, but to say the color in which the word is printed. So, for group A, the answer is "blue green purple red orange black." This is harder than just reading the words as written.

February 19, 2014 10:34 PM

I'm not sure if an incongruity would make a name harder to remember, but I do know I'm more likely to second-guess myself before using it. I just met a 2-year old named Sandra and I think I'll feel a bit strange using her name the first few times, wondering "Am I sure that's right?"

February 20, 2014 12:52 AM

Girela, that would explain why I wasn't seeing any difference between the two color lists, whereas I remember having difficulty with a Stroop test presented elsewhere.

It really would make a good graduate thesis to study the connection between a name's incongruity and memorability. Coming back to comment on this post after half a day, I can remember half the second group (with attached faces), but none of the first group of names -- but I don't know if this would be the case if the sets had come up in some other context, where the incongruities weren't highlighted and featured like this.

February 20, 2014 12:10 PM

Kayden is the only one from group 2 that seems so off that it strikes me as weird.  Some of the others might be a little surprising, but I don't think I'd wonder if I heard the name correctly when being introduced to any of them.

However, I know a mother/daughter pair with names that seem swapped for their generations.  It took me forever to remember that the 30-something mom was An@ and the little girl was Jessic@.  My brain kept insisting that the mom was a Jessic@ because I know so many of a similar age, so of course the daughter must be An@

By Tuva
February 21, 2014 4:21 PM

I know a mom/daughter combo where the mom is Isabelle and the daughter is Stephanie, and I'm always getting them confused.

I know a toddler called "Roy" and I find the incongruity does make it memorable for me. I can't help but smile when I say the name. The same thing goes for a 50+ year old "Dakota" I know. I keep thinking his parents were way ahead on a bad naming trend.

February 23, 2014 12:03 PM

Another example of the parent's and child's names appearing to be reversed: On the show Up All Night from 2011-12, the mom was Reagan and the baby daughter was Amy (on top of that one of Reagan's friends was Ava). Then there are the examples I've mentioned before of mom Jen(ny) (albeit short for Jane) with daughter Linda, and dad Nathan with son Paul. Then there is one case I recall mentioned on here several years ago that would've seemed more real in the past than now - mom Rose with daughter Sharon.

February 25, 2014 12:46 AM

You might be interested in this NPR article on what happens when a pair of cognitive scientists need to name their children and want "evidence-based" decision making to take center stage. They collected a lot of the data themselves.

I, too, know a child with a disconcerting name, but this time it comes from cultural issues. The parents are immigrants from S. America, and wanted their children to have Anglo names "to fit in" (it's sad for them to feel like a Spanish name would be too different in Canada), and then have Spanish middle names in case they returned to the parents' home country and/or for grandparents to use. Their son got a name that could be considered old-fashioned, in that it doesn't reflect any of today's trends, but it's a saint's name, has an easy Spanish correlate, and the name has always been in in the Top 100 in the U.S., almost exclusively in the Top 50. Their daughter, on the other hand, has a name that the mom just heard and liked, but stands out amid all the Sofias, Isabellas, and McKaylas around her, as it's a name that was in the Top 10...for the decade of the 1940s.

March 5, 2014 4:31 PM

Just had to share a story of a name disconnect. A former boss of mine had set up an interview with a woman who happened to be temping for an attorney we worked with a lot. He announced that "Vedah Hallberg will be a big, strapping German woman!" (Yes, he was kind of a jerk.) Of course Vedah turned out to be 4'11" and about 100 lbs. soaking wet. And not German at all. However, what she lacked in stature, she made up for in force of personality.

March 10, 2014 3:06 PM

Speaking of name disconnect, I had the experience two years ago of meeting someone whose name seemed (to me) not to match the person at all.  

I met a woman in her mid-to-late sixties.  She had silvery-white hair (natural color, as she was letting it go grey -or white- naturally).  

She introduced herself to me as "Megan".  Though I didn't say so, in my mind I simply could not accept that Megan was her real name.  It seemed like the name of her granddaughter's generation.

In conversation with her, I told her that I found her name quite surprising, and she admitted to me that her given name is Margaret.  She said she didn't like the name Margaret, so (as an adult) she had chosen another name for herself.  She had read that Megan is a form of the name Margaret, so she decided to call herself Megan.

But to my mind, the name Megan just seemed wrong on her.

March 19, 2014 3:10 PM

I am a 33 year old Meghan with a 7 year old daughter named Katherine.  People flip our names all the time.

April 1, 2014 11:26 PM

I find the names  that don't match the person to be very interesting.  My daughter and her husband named their son Ezekiel.  Called Zeke.  I was told that people would expect an ethnic looking little boy when they hear his name. If  a person didn't know he was a child, they would expect Zeke to be an older man.   Plus people would be surprised to learn a child named Ezekiel has parents named Kyle and Kelly.

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