Ivory Towers: Know what I mean, Dorothy?

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WHAT'S in a name? The answer is more than Shakespeare ever dreamt of, according to recent research. In his paper 'Sex bias in the naming of stimulus persons' (Psychological Bulletin 1993, vol 113, pp 140-163), Joseph Kasof analyses what qualities are associated with particular first names.

This is an important issue in research on sex discrimination. A standard experimental design has been to see what difference it makes if you change a John to a Jane in a narrative. Will people draw different conclusions simply because the gender has changed? Kasof points out: 'Names also create impressions that have little or nothing to do with sex.'

There is, in fact, a wealth of research showing that names are liable to carry connotations of age, intellectual competence and attractiveness. The implications are disturbing. In 1973, Harari and McDavid showed that essays purportedly written by students with attractive names receive higher marks than those written by ugly names. 'Subjects in one study expected greater intelligence and creativity from females forenamed Courtney than from others forenamed Berleana.' And, more applicably, Charles is deemed more intelligent and creative than Carl.

Putting together earlier studies, Kasof analysed ratings of more than 1,000 names. Comparing scores on this list with studies on sex-bias, he found that researchers had themselves shown a 'pervasive bias' in the selection of male names more attractive, youthful and intellectually competent than the female ones with which they were being compared.

Accordingly, he analysed the results to produce pairs of names matched on attractiveness, intellectual competence, age and racial connotation. His results indicate that a Brian is much the same as a Karen, a Patricia is a Tom, and you can swap a Gary for a Lisa or a Lynn. An Albert might as well be a Ruth, an Audrey could easily pass for a Frank, and Dorothy and Harry are also interchangeable. Brian and Karen, incidentally, are both younger and more attractive than Harry and Dorothy.

The research also indicated that 'college-age men expected more enjoyment and more intellectual stimulation from courses taught by instructors titled Ms than Mrs or Miss'. The title of Ms carries connotations of being achievement orientated, socially assertive, dynamic and competent.