We look like our names but not because of self-styling

23 Aug 2022
The latest in the Sasin Research Seminar series is a look at ongoing research into the link between faces and names by Pinnaree Tea-Makorn, PhD. The lecture began by asking if it would be possible to guess someone’s name just by looking at their face. Dr. Pinnaree argues that you can, but it’s not because of self-styling. To introduce the topic, she gave an example showing the picture of a man with the name options John or Mary. John is a much more likely name for a man. Similarly, ethnicity and age can provide strong clues. Things became harder with her following example of a Caucasian man named either Danny or Nathan. If you remove age, gender, and ethnicity, guessing a name becomes harder. Past literature on the topic was then examined. The results have been mixed. For example, Zwebner et al. (2017) posited that people tend to shape their controllable appearance, particularly hairstyles, according to their names. This is due to their behavior being influenced by the self-fulling prophecy from their names. To look at the possible self-fulfilling mechanism, Dr. Pinnaree explained some of Zwebner’s findings. Three pictures were presented. One was just the hair, another a face, and the third a full combination of hair and face. Zwebner found people could accurately guess the name (from a selection) that was higher than pure chance for all three options. The full combination was the most accurate, but interestingly, the option that was just hair scored more highly than the one that was solely a face. The proposed reason for this is that individuals can control hairstyles more than faces. People might be influenced by their name and others’ reactions to it, so their hairstyling choices might be affected. Consequently, hair can provide more information about a person than their face. Dr. Pinnaree wanted to test this idea from a different viewpoint. She then explained the methodology and data used. She used photos of 48 white Americans in the San Francisco Bay area whose names are in the top 300 most popular for their age group according to the Social Security Administration. The variable conditions were photos from social media versus pictures taken in a controlled lab. The participants selecting the names to match the faces came from Amazon Mechanical Turk workers. The reason for these choices is that social media best reflects how someone wants to present themselves. So, if the self-fulfilling prophecy is the primary mechanism, and names influence personality, faces, and hairstyles, these pictures will better reflect that. In comparison, the laboratory photos were taken under highly controlled conditions, with no makeup, facial hair, accessories, etc. For the research, photographs from the lab and social media had four potential names underneath. One was correct, and the others were common names for someone of that gender, age, and ethnicity. The results were surprising. Both conditions resulted in higher than chance accuracy, but the correct guesses were higher in lab conditions than in social media. If the self-fulfilling prophecy is in play, social media images should have had higher accuracy. Therefore, the conclusion reached was that names are associated with other factors that are not personality. Possible options include socioeconomic status, ethnicity, or other cultural clues. The talk was then followed by a lively Q&A session. Other related studies were discussed, such as one that linked school grading to names and posed questions about what would happen if someone changed names. Another topic was how the names were selected and presented. For example, in some countries and periods, names may have been based on a limited number of religious names. Avenues for further research were explored, including the ‘Dorian Gray’ effect, results for differing ethnicities, and what might happen with twins – identical and non-identical.  
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