I often wonder why we as parents are so fascinated with top baby name lists. Are parents excited when their children are on the list or off? How many parents believe they are picking a unique name only to discover many new parents picked that name as well?
Apparently this isn’t just a fascinating topic, it’s a research-worthy one.
Jo Craven McGinty of The Wall Street Journal wrote a column on this very subject this past July, citing a study that analyzed baby names as they pertained to the evolution of culture.
It turns out that baby name preference correlates with culture in that states similar in lifestyle and political views will trend the same way.
“Southern states gravitate toward each other, as do left-leaning states like New York and California,” writes McGinty.
Unique Name or Narcissism?
The real question, though, is whether that is upsetting or just fine with new parents. Do they select a name hoping to blend in with the crowd, or are they looking to set a trend of their own?
According to some studies, parents obsessed with choosing a unique name for their child may actually have narcissistic tendencies, or an overinflated sense of self. This may be why crazy names come from celebrity camps, such as Apple, Bear, and, most recently, Spurgeon and Saint.
These parents may also project that ego onto their children, holding an exaggerated perspective of their child’s intelligence.
“We presented parents with items that children should be familiar with by the end of their first year at secondary school, such as ‘Neil Armstrong’ and the book ‘Animal Farm,'” writes Eddie Brummelman, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Amsterdam, in his article, “Just because you think your children are extraordinary, doesn’t mean they are.”
“For each topic, we asked parents whether they thought their child would be familiar with it. Unbeknownst to the parents, we also included items that did not actually exist, such as ‘Queen Alberta’ and ‘The Tale of Benson Bunny.’ Overvaluing parents tended to claim that their child had knowledge of many different topics – including these non-existent ones.”
Do I think all parents looking to name their child something unique are narcissists? No. I’m guessing many of us experience the same as this commenter and his wife did: a hope to name our child something sentimental only to find out the name has gone viral.
“When our daughter was born in the mid–80s, there were no Hannahs anywhere,” wrote Tom Neven on McGinty’s WSJ article. “I had never met anyone named Hannah, and there were no Hannahs in popular culture or the news. We thought we were choosing a unique name. (Our inspiration was the biblical Hannah.) By the time she enrolled in school, she was the 4th Hannah in her class. How in the world does this happen?”
The same happened with my son, Jack. My late uncle’s name was Jack, and – from the time he passed away in 2005 – I was hoping to name a son after him. It turns out the name was more popular than I thought – at least regionally. By the time my son was born in 2012, Jack was No. 17 on the top 100 list in the state where I live, according to nametrends.net.
The point is that I may not have actually understood what was influencing my name choice. Sure, I want to name my son something sentimental, but I may have also been affected by the culture around me without realizing it. The reason this phenomenon is so intriguing for researchers, says McGinty, is because there is nothing other than culture to sway people one way or another.
“There is no advertising suggesting that Marie should be the most popular name,” said Dr. Jonah Berger, the author of “Contagious: Why Things Catch On” and a professor of marketing at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. “There is no difference in price. There is no difference in quality.”
That means this information can tell researchers is how ideas spread, which is a valuable pattern to understand.
“If, systematically, what happens in one state predicts what will happen in another state in the next two or three years,” said Giorgio Parisi, a theoretical physicist at Sapienza University of Rome, and co-author of the study, “that’s something we’d like to understand.”