'We become what other people expect us to become'

Does your name affect your appearance? Israeli research suggests it does

Hebrew U study shows people can guess your name based on your face at a relatively high rate, indicating that a name carries certain expectations and interactions that in turn impact your identity and appearance

Portraits, stock image (bowie15, IStock Getty Images)
Portraits, stock image (bowie15, IStock Getty Images)

There is a good chance that others can guess your name based on your appearance, according to new research from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

A team of researchers, led by Ruth Mayo and Yonat Zwebner, showed portrait photographs to groups of people and asked them to choose the correct name from a list of four. The observers consistently picked the right name at a higher rate than simple chance.

In a study entitled “We Look Like Our Names: The Manifestation of Name Stereotypes in Facial Appearance,” published in the “Journal of Personality and Social Psychology” Monday, researchers found that a sample group was able to pick the correct name nearly 40 percent of the time.

When looking at a face and selecting one of four possible names, observers chose the correct name 38% of the time — significantly above the 25% chance level of a random guess. The effect held true even when the researchers controlled for age and ethnicity, implying that something more than simple socioeconomic cues was at work.

The researchers found that even when shown only a person’s hairstyle, they could still beat the odds to correctly guess the name.

Mayo and Zwebner, along with Anne-Laure Sellier, Nir Rosenfeld and Jacob Goldenberg, carried out the research in Israel and in France with similar results. However, they discovered that French speakers were unable to identify Israeli names from faces and vice versa at a statistically higher rate, implying that the connection between the name and face is cultural.

People are able to guess a person's name based on their appearance according to research published February 27, 2017 (Screen capture: Journal of Personality and Social Psychology)
People are better able to guess a person’s name based on their appearance, according to research published February 27, 2017 (Screen capture: Journal of Personality and Social Psychology)

Our research demonstrates that indeed people do look like their name,” said Mayo. “Furthermore, we suggest this happens because of a process of self-fulfilling prophecy, as we become what other people expect us to become.”

Prior literature has termed the influence of personality and other internal factors on outward facial appearance the “Dorian Gray effect,” after the protagonist in Oscar Wilde’s 1890 novel “The Picture of Dorian Gray.” Gray’s hedonistic lifestyle aged a portrait hanging in a locked room. The new research suggests that one’s given name may have a Dorian Gray effect on one’s face.

“We are familiar with similar processes from other stereotypes like race and gender, where many times the stereotypical expectations of others affect who we become. We hypothesize that there are similar stereotypes about names, including how someone with a specific name looks, and these expectations really do affect our facial appearance,” said Mayo.

A baby’s name is chosen by others, and the researchers posited that the name “leads to certain social expectations, inferences, and interactions.” The person may be treated as if they have the traits associated with that name, which in turn influences the person’s identity and appearance.

The team found that only the commonly used name had an apparent impact on the face — not the name on a birth certificate. The groups were also not good at identifying those who went by nicknames, implying that people are not necessarily limited by the name their parents gave them.

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