The Real "Me" Decade?

Feb 27th 2014

Novelist Tom Wolfe famously dubbed the 1970s "The Me Decade." He was talking about a rising focus on the self -- an individualism that had Americans obsessing inwardly, trying to understand and remodel themselves, rather than looking outward at their communities.

It turns out that he could have gone with a much more literal definition. Take a look at what happend to "Me" names in the '70s:

Melissa, Megan, Melinda, Melanie. These names swarmed the '70s, shouting "me, Me, ME!" Over the decade, Melissa alone outpaced the traditional M girls Mary and Margaret put together.

Could it be mere coincidence, that the Me- wave hit in the age of "ME!"? Umm, yeah, it could. Definitely. In fact, if you say those names aloud -- Melissa, Megan, Melinda, Melanie -- you'll find that they don't shout "ME!" at all. It was an era of short consonants. "The Meh Decade," anyone?

In truth, Wolfe's "Me Decade" was never about telling your name the livelong day to an admiring bog. The core idea wasn't attracting the attention of others. Rather, it was the age of self-help and self-discovery; of "finding yourself" within yourself, rather than as a cog in the great machine of society.

That seems a different brand of narcissism from today's "Look-At-Me" decade, in which which our inner lives become ever outer. This is the age of over-sharing, of social media and reality tv. It's also the age of the Great Baby Name Explosion, as increasingly creative name choices vie for attention.

You can see that desire to stand out in every possible measurement. The popularity of very long and very short names have both risen. Names with the eye-catching letters X and Z are at all-time highs. And "popular" has become a dirty word, as parents shy away from the top of the baby name popularity charts. Today's #1 names, Jacob and Sophia, are only one quarter as common as the #1 names of 1976, when Wolfe wrote his article.

Perhaps it's fitting, then, that this is also the age of names that literally shout "ME!" by starting with that syllable:

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.

The Beatles, Creativity, and Baby Names

Feb 13th 2014

As America marks the 50th anniversary of the Beatles' breakthrough 1964 performance on the Ed Sullivan Show, I'd like to point out a little-noted aspect of Beatlemania:

Two of the most creative, transformative artists of the past half-century were named John and Paul.

Today's baby namers focus on creativity, but it doesn't take a creative name to produce a creative spirit. Pablo Picasso, Steve Jobs, Marie Curie, John Coltrane, Betty Friedan, Jorge Luis Borges, Stanley every field of endeavor, you'll find revolutionary impulses paired with ordinary names. Everybody still talks about the names of Moon Unit and Dweezil Zappa, but those names were products of a creative genius named Frank.

Statistically, it was inevitable that a large number of innovators would come out of the deep conventional end of the name pool. All of the visionary individuals I've mentioned were born in an age when "normal" names really were the norm. It remains to be seen whether today's more creative approach to baby names produces a more creative generation of humans.

Perhaps it would help to focus on a different kind of creativity in naming. Are there names that, rather than reflecting parents' creativity in name selection, reflect the spirit of creativity itself? Could honoring an artist or innovator send an inspiring message to your child, encouraging her to blaze her own trail?

Let's consider the Beatles. It's impossible to measure the number of boys who have been named John, Paul or George in homage to the Fab Four, because those names were already so ingrained in our culture. John, in particular, is the #1 classic boy's name in the history of the English language. Yes, American usage of the name John did spike in 1964, but the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963 was surely the biggest reason. So if you're looking for period Beatlenamia (sorry), you're left with Ringo:

That is one small, small wave. At the 1965 peak, Ringo was tied in popularity with names like Delwyn, Durwood, and Theophilus.

But with all due respect to Mr. Starr, if you're choosing a Beatle name to honor the spirit of artistic innovation, you're not going to go with Ringo, are you? You might turn to a song name, like Lucy or Jude. But most likely, you're going to choose a surname.

More than 2,000 American boys last year were named Harrison, as in Beatle George. Harrison, though, is also a presidential surname and a formal extension of Harry. When you hear the name, it doesn't come across as a Beatles homage. Starr, similarly, comes across as a variant of Star. The core homage names today are Lennon and McCartney, particularly Lennon:

The dominance of the name Lennon over McCartney may owe in part to John Lennon's iconic association with the ideals of peace and love. I suspect, though, that it has more to do with Lennon's smooth, classically namelike sound. In fact, the name was used at low but consistent levels long before the Beatles hit our shores. An American boy was as likely to be named Lennon in 1936 as 1986. (The resemblance to "Lenin" might have kept the name from rising during the Cold War.)

Lennon is a particularly good match for our -n obsessed name age. Similar-sounding names like Brennan and the decidedly non-peaceful Cannon are even more popular.

You see this sensitivity to name trends across the creativity-name spectrum. The artist-inspired name Calder is in play, while Picasso remains a non-starter. A dozen Austens are born for every Bronte; three Edisons for every Tesla. Even as we aim to express individuality and creativity, we can't help wanting to do it just like everybody else.

That's probably for the best. Kids do still want to fit in, at least a little, and there's a fine line between artistic homage and pretentious overkill. Besides, we can still show Picasso paintings, read Bronte novels, and explain alternating current to our kids whether we name them after artists, after their grandparents, or even after the latest reality-tv trainwreck. That's what will give them their best chance to to become innovators, just like those four lads named John, Paul, George, and yes, Ringo.