March 27, 2005

Does naming your son DeAndre rather than David doom him?

Richard Morin writes in the Washington Post about a study of Florida students by economist David Figlio that found:

Here's a reason to think twice before naming your newborn Ashlee, Da'Quan or LaQuisha: Economist David Figlio says his research shows that children with such names fare worse in school than siblings with more typical first names.

And it's not the children's fault, says Figlio, a professor at the University of Florida. He argues that teachers subconsciously expect less from students with first names that have unusual spellings and punctuation. As a consequence, he says, these boys and girls suffer in terms of the quality of the attention and instruction they get in the classroom -- differences that show up on test day.

Figlio said these kids also pay a price for their names when teachers and administrators make decisions about who gets promoted to the next grade level or selected to participate in "gifted" student programs: "Drews" are slightly more likely to be recommended for enrichment classes while "Damarcuses" are rejected, even when they have identical test scores.

"I find that teachers tend to treat children differently depending on their names, and that these same patterns apparently translate into large differences in test scores," Figlio asserts in a working paper published this month by the National Bureau of Economic Research. "These results are consistent with the notion that teachers and school administrators may subconsciously expect less of students with names associated with low socio-economic status . . . and these expectations may possibly become a self-fulfilling prophesy."

Figlio first attempted to quantify names that connote low socioeconomic status. He used birth certificate data from all children born in Florida between 1989 and 1996 to identify first names that had a high probability of being associated with a mother who was unmarried or a teenager at the time when her child was born, was a high school dropout and came from an impoverished family, independent of the mother's race. He then computed what he dubbed the "Scrabble" score of each name, giving points for infrequently appearing consonants, an apostrophe or names formed by multiple syllables. "These names, empirically, are given most frequently by blacks, but they are also given by white and Hispanic parents as well" -- with similarly debilitating effects for children of all races, he found. (Exotic names popular with less affluent white families included "Jazzmyn" and "Chlo'e," he wrote in an e-mail.)

Looking at siblings is a good methodology, but I'd like to know more about the effect size. (Newspaper write-ups of social science studies almost never tell you the effect size -- reporters generally believe that if the effect is "statistically significant" it is also significant in real life, which often is not the case with a large enough study.) I suspect the intra-family difference between brothers named Jalen and Jacob is small compared to the inter-family difference between families that have any Jalens in them and families that have any Jacobs. So, the answer is, no, it probably won't doom your little D'Andre, but it likely won't do him any good.

It's reasonable that names can influence a child's attitude toward "acting white." Giving your child a lower class black name is announcing your solidarity with lower class black values. Naming your kid Jamal instead of James sends him a message about how you expect him to act, and it shouldn't come as a surprise that individual Jamals act, on average, more like the average Jamal than do individual Jameses.

The economist's explanation about teacher bias sounds not implausible, although I would like to know whether he is measuring just full siblings or, more likely, full and half siblings. There could be substantial underlying average differences even between siblings depending on their names. The kind of woman who names one of her kids D'Shawn or Trevon is more likely to have children by more than one man than the kind of woman who names one of her kids Benjamin or Ansel. If she gives one son a super-black name and another son a more mainstream name, it might mean they had different baby-daddies with different tastes ... and different child-rearing styles and different genes.

Also, a lot of the names of the Aaliyah and Imani type are examples of schoolgirl whimsy. Perhaps when the mother becomes older and wiser she'll choose a less stereotyped named, and that may have some impact on how she raises her child.


By the way, regarding the name "Ansel," which ranks very high among boys names in average education level of parents (Dov is #1), if you are going to name your kid after a celebrity in the hopes, probably forlorn, that he takes after him, it strikes me that Ansel Adams stood for an awfully fine combination of qualities you'd wish for your child to enjoy: nature and art, outdoors and indoors, national parks and museums, strenuousness and long life, aesthetic dedication and monetary success...

My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer


Anonymous said...

it's funny -- the first thing that comes to mind when I hear the name 'Ansel' is condoms -- that's the leading international brand of 'rubbers' and gloves here in Australia.

Anonymous said...

It has actually been found that the name does not hold much weight when it comes to how teachers perceive students. The tale lies in the socioeconomic status of the families that name their children one of the names you pointed out. In actuality it has been found that an affluent DeAndre' will fare better and be better accepted by teahcers and peers in school than an empoverished Drew.