Was Freakonomics Right About Baby Names?

Jul 30th 2015


Ten years ago, the authors of the pop-economics book Freakonomics made some bold predictions. They had analyzed names and income among a sample of Californians, and come up with a class-based theory of baby name trends.

Call it the "trickle-down theory." Baby names, they claimed, first catch on with high-income, highly educated families, then trickle down the socioeconomic ladder as aspirational parents copy the more privileged. In their words, "It isn't famous people who drive the name game. It is the family just a few blocks over, the one with the bigger house and newer car."

Inspired by that theory, they compiled a list of 45 "high-end names" that they predicted would become popular with the masses by 2015. Now that the future is here, we can put their predictions to the test. Here's the 10-year popularity curve of the Trickle-Down 45:

On first glance, that looks pretty impressive. Their predicted names were given to 43,000 more babies last year vs. in 2004, a rise of nearly 40%. But there's more going on behind that graph. Take a look at what had happened to those same names in the decade before Freakonomics was written:

Now that's what I call a trend. In the prior 10 years the names had risen in popularity by 87,000 babies per year, a rise of nearly 400%. In other words, the authors had caught a ride on the tail of a comet, choosing a set of names that were already wildly trendy. That's no coincidence. The Freakonomics name list wasn't a pure economic projection; it was a hand-culled sample based on the authors' own sense of what sounded fashionable.

The trendiness of their name choices alone could account for their positive results. In fact, the authors would have done better in their predictions by simply listing all baby names that had risen every year during the previous decade. Compare the two outcomes (normalized to display on the same scale):

 

That doesn't look good for the power of the trickle-down theory. Even if their predictions were correct, though, I think they'd be a red herring. The big picture in baby names is not top-down but defiantly grassroots. Any parents who choose names because they're popular with the ruling class are swimming against the powerful and fascinating current of American naming culture.

Take a look at the names that actually rose the most in the USA over the past decade (based on our standard BabyNameWizard.com "hotness formula"). All currently rank among the top 1000 names for boys or girls:

Jayceon

Daleyza

Cataleya

Neymar

Coraline

Everleigh

Khaleesi

Bentlee

Zendaya

Urijah

If you don't recognize all of those names, I'll give you a hint: there's not a Fortune 500 CEO in the bunch. They're an ethnically diverse lineup showcasing the full range of popular entertainment: extreme fighting champions, Spanish-language tv stars, action-movie antiheros, animated characters, reality tv stars -- lots of reality tv stars. This won't come as a surprise to regular readers of this blog. Every year we run a contest to predict the fastest rising names in America, and the smart money is always on the populist side of culture, especially reality tv, telenovelas and hip hop.

A closer look further challenges the notion of aspirational naming. Anyone from an adult entertainer to an assassin to the spawn of Satan can inspire namesakes, as long as their name is catchy enough. The single biggest baby name hit machine of recent years has been Teen Mom, the show that follows the lives of pregnant, unmarried 16-year-old girls. Even among the Freakonomics names, the closest they came to predicting a breakout hit was the girl's name Quinn...and that name only took off six years after their prediction, when it was featured as the name of a pregnant cheerleader on the tv series Glee.

In other words, American parents are picking up fresh new names wherever they find them, and those names don't sound anything like ladder climbing. Increasing numbers of parents are going off-road inventing whole new names. Some take words that express something about them and turn them into names. (Firearms-related terms are popular choices.) Others simply string together attractive sounds. As the hip hop and reality tv names above become popular, it's a fair bet that most of them will be abandoned in favor of something fresher.

Any analysis that focuses on the very top of the name popularity list will miss this big picture. The existence of a top 10 maintains the illusion of consensus, but it represents an ever-shrinking slice of the population. Every name now represents its own subculture and worldview, and poorer parents aren't following in the steps of the wealthy. They're aggressively blazing their own trails. 

Comments

1
July 31, 2015 11:22 AM

Laura, just when I don't think I could love this blog any harder, you go and debunk Freakonomics!  Wonderful post.

2
August 4, 2015 12:40 PM

 A great column -- I think the main reason that there is some "trickle down" is definitely NOT because poorer parents are directly copying the tastes of people higher on the social scale who they know personally (which seems to be the Freakonomics idea) but because the screenwriters and producers who run the entertainment business are highly educated avant-garde types themselves who name characters in TV and film the same names they like for babies -- and if the film or series is popular, AND the name fits in with fashionable sounds, it then booms throughout the population.

Characters in movies, TV, and even popular novels often get names which they are "too old" for but which are among the "revival" type names that college educated artsy people like -- and then that spreads them further. One recent example is Hazel -- which undoubtedly would not have increased as much as it has if first Julia Roberts hadn't named her daughter that, and then John Green hadn't named the main character in "The Fault in Our Stars" Hazel -- a highly unusual name for a teenage girl when the book was published, but one that educated avant-garde writers like Green (prep school grad, Kenyon College English major, married to an art museum director) were giving to their own baby daughters.

 

3
August 4, 2015 12:51 PM

Fascinating! No wonder I keep coming back to this site long after my own babies have been named. :) 

4
August 4, 2015 3:17 PM

A note on Hazel: The character in The Fault in Our Stars was based on a real teenage girl who was actually (though improbably) named Hazel. So that specific example wasn't driven by John Green's fashion sense, as far as I know.

I agree that it happens to fit right in with the "revival" trend, though, which I'm sure boosts its popularity immensely!

5
August 4, 2015 3:33 PM

The character Hazel was actually based on a real life girl named Esther. 

6
August 4, 2015 9:38 PM

I've read (and written) articles in peer reviewed scientific journals with less sophisticated analysis than this. Nice piece of quantitative reasoning, here. :-)

7
August 5, 2015 8:59 AM

Cleveland Kent Evans, that's a terrific point about screenwriters exposing the country to the baby name tastes of their own set. In the past, it was an open question whether the resulting name trends reflected the perceived high status of the names, or simply the effect of mass exposure. IMO reality tv has largely answered that question. Parents are just as willing to pick up a new name from Teen Mom, Duck Dynasty or Love & Hip Hop as from a character named by the Hollywood elite.

8
August 6, 2015 10:10 AM

Great post! It's so true that television and movies, and to a lesser extent music, influence names, certainly much more than any other trend. One only has to look at the number of people naming their children Kheleesi and Arrow, to see the effect TV plays, but I could go only and on about how TV affects our life choices! As far as I can tell, it's always been that way, before movies and tv there were plays and books and poetry. Take the name Wendy, for example, which JM Barrie invented for Peter Pan, and Pamela, which Shakespeare invented too, both names which were once very popular in their day. The name Alice also experienced an all time high in popularity after Carroll realsed Alice in Wonderland. I think it might have something to do with the repetition affect, you hear/read the name so often it starts sounding better and better, especially when you're enjoying the context it's being used in. I know I've found that in the past, like for example with the name Ezra, which I never thought much of, until I got into watching a show with a main character named Ezra. Over time it really grew on me, and it's one of my favourites now! Repetition + enjoyment/positive association + popular culture = baby-naming machine!

9
August 6, 2015 12:04 PM

Pamela was actually invented by poet Philip Sidney and was later popularized by Samuel Richardson's novel by the same name, but I take your point. I bet there was a popular cultural influence that caused it to be a big hit in the mid-20th century here in the US.

10
August 7, 2015 9:35 PM

Oops! I knew I should have checked that . . .

11
December 30, 2015 1:08 PM

I like your analytical effort but your analysis has too many confounding factors to claim you've debunked the Freakonomics theory. Namely, you're not comparing apples to apples because you're not controlling for race or income. The reason your list of names is mainly composed of ethnic names is because whites have much lower birth rates. You need to control for all these factors in order to test the Freakonomics theory.

12
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