#189      17 min 36 sec
Easy to say, easy to like: People's names and the impressions they make

Social psychologist Dr Simon Laham discusses his research linking the pronounceability of a person’s name with perceptions of likeability, and what this might mean for a person’s access to opportunities.

"Give people more experience at pronouncing and working with names from different backgrounds, and in its small way, it could contribute to reducing prejudice." -- Dr Simon Laham




Dr Simon Laham
Dr Simon Laham

Dr Simon Laham received his PhD from the University of New South Wales in 2006. He has since held post-doctoral positions at the universities of Oxford and Melbourne. He is currently an ARC Research Fellow and lecturer in Psychological Sciences. Dr Laham's two main research interests are the psychology of morality and cultural dynamics. His work on the psychology of morality focuses on the emotional, social, and cognitive processes underpinning moral judgment and behaviour, while his research on cultural dynamics centers on the non-verbal communication of cultural information, such as attitudes, beliefs and values. This work considers some of the basic processes involved in the formation, maintenance, and change of cultures over time.

Laham, S.M., et al., The name-pronunciation effect: Why people like Mr. Smith more than Mr. Colquhoun, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (2012)

Other publications

School of Psychological Sciences, University of Melbourne

Credits

Presenter: Sacha Payne
Producers: Kelvin Param, Eric van Bemmel
Audio Engineer: Gavin Nebauer
Voiceover: Nerissa Hannink
Series Creators: Eric van Bemmel and Kelvin Param

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VOICEOVER 
Welcome to Up Close, the research talk show from the University of Melbourne, Australia. 

SACHA PAYNE 
I'm Sacha Payne, thanks for joining us.  What's in a name?  It's often said that potential employers have made their decision about giving you the job from the moment you walk in the door.  First impressions obviously count.  But new research suggests the way others perceive you may start before they've even met you, and simply from how easy it is to say your name.Researchers from the University of Melbourne, Belgium's Leuven University and New York University, have examined the name pronunciation effect - why people like Mr Smith more than Mr Colquhoun.  Five related studies published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology demonstrate how people with easy to pronounce names can often gain more success and be perceived more positively in the workplace and politics.Lead author Doctor Simon Laham is from the University of Melbourne and he joins me now.  Doctor Laham, welcome.

SIMON LAHAM
Thank you.

SACHA PAYNE
Firstly, you came to this research from your work in processing fluency.  Can you explain a little bit what that is? 

SIMON LAHAM
Right, yes - I've always been interested in the way that subtle biases influence human judgement and decision making and one such subtle bias is what psychologists call processing fluency.  This is the subjective experience that comes with cognitive processes.  So a good example I think is to think about doing an exam.  You go into an exam, you sit down, you work through all the questions, you come out of the exam and you think to yourself, that was an easy exam.  That's a subjective experience of ease that comes with a set of cognitive operations.  We call easy experiences like that, fluent experiences and if you thought the exam was difficult for example, we'd call that a disfluent experience and the interesting thing about the subjective experiences is that they've been shown to influence a wide range of judgements, from judgements about truth to familiarity to positivity - even moral judgements are influenced by these subjective experiences. 

SACHA PAYNE 
When you take it outside people's actual conscious awareness of why they're making those judgements, are you able to see why they are making them? 

SIMON LAHAM
Well researchers think that the reason that processing fluency affects judgements is that the easy processing experiences actually have this intrinsic positivity to them - this positive affective or emotional state and that positive glow that you feel gets attached to whatever you're processing and as a result of that, you come to see that stimulus as more positive.  That's how we think it works and those links people we don't think are aware of.

SACHA PAYNE
So what kind of factors feed into how you perceive things?

SIMON LAHAM
There are lots of factors that influence how you form impressions of other people for example.  Physical appearance matters a lot.  We're really fast at making judgements based on physical appearance.  But the reason I got attracted to names is that no-one's ever looked at the way that processing fluency surrounding names impacts judgement.  There's a bit of research on other name characteristics.  So some studies show for example that people with African-American sounding names are less likely to get called back for a job interview and that boys with girls names - girl sounding names - at school, are more likely to be suspended.So there's a bit of research about names but none had ever linked processing fluency to impression formation.

SACHA PAYNE
So when you looked at this study, how did you define an easy to pronounce name?

SIMON LAHAM
Well we left it up to the participants really.  So this really depends on a person's subjective experience of ease.  So some people might find some names easy to pronounce, whereas others may find the very same names difficult to pronounce.  So we really had people read a list of names and make judgements about how easy they were to pronounce.

SACHA PAYNE
So had they heard the names as well or was it just written down?

SIMON LAHAM
No, just written down.  So this is really based on reading fluency basically.

SACHA PAYNE
And what did the study reveal about processing fluency?

SIMON LAHAM
Well across the five studies we showed a basic effect that easy to pronounce names are liked more and we also showed that political candidates with easy to pronounce names were judged to be better candidates and more likely to be voted for. And in a field study that we did, we showed that lawyers with easy to pronounce names occupied higher positions in their law firm hierarchies.

SACHA PAYNE
Who were the participants in the studies?

SIMON LAHAM
We drew on a bunch of different participant populations.  So we looked at university students from different ethnic backgrounds.  We had Asian, Australian participants, people who identified as being Anglo-Australian, in the US we used Anglo-American participants and we also drew on a range of different nationalities for the names that people were to judge.  So we used Greek names, Polish names, names from various African nations, as well as Anglo-Celtic names.

SACHA PAYNE
Were there familiar themes through names from different ethnicities through the five studies?

SIMON LAHAM
Yes, the basic effects that we found, which I just mentioned, hold across all the studies - all the participant pools and all the target names and nationalities from which the targets were drawn.We didn't in any of the studies, compare the ease of pronunciation of some ethnicities, but with other ethnicities we just looked at whether or not the name pronunciation effect held across the different nationalities and it seemed to be the same size regardless of who was doing the judging and what nationality they were judging.

SACHA PAYNE
So how did people express this when you said, what do you think of this person - did they rate them on a certain likeability scale?

SIMON LAHAM
Yes, so again it varied across studies, but the basic questions we asked were about liking of names.  So after rating how easy the name was to pronounce, we said, how much do you like this name?  In other studies we asked, how much do you like the person?  We also asked, is this candidate a good political candidate?  Would you vote for the candidate?  So there are a range of different questions, but they all kind of centred around sort of positivity - getting at whether the participants thought this target was a good target - a positive target.

SACHA PAYNE
So there were five different studies and they ranged from information rich situations to relatively information poor.  Can you explain how you did that and how that influenced the results?

SIMON LAHAM
Right, so we started with quite tightly controlled laboratory studies where we stripped out all the extraneous factors and just looked at ease of pronunciation and liking.  So we've been calling those reasonably information poor situations, because in those contexts, all the person has to go on is the name.  Usually when we make judgements of other people, there's lots of other information around and it was quite possible that name pronunciation, if it worked at all, would be washed out in more realistic information rich contexts.So we decided to do a series of studies building up from information poor, where we established the effect and then added complexity each time - added a bit of noise to show that the effect remained and stayed reasonably robust, even in the sort - what we're considering the very real world context of law firm hierarchies.I think it's definitely the case that the effect is still there across these different contexts, but I think it gets a little bit smaller as we introduce more noise - more information.

SACHA PAYNE
So in study one, did people just have the names?

SIMON LAHAM
Yes, study one was just a list of names.  People were given a list of names from different ethnic backgrounds - names that we judged as researchers, intuitive to be varying in ease of pronunciation and some people were asked to judge those names on fluency - how easy is a name to pronounce.  Other people gave ratings on liking.  Other people gave ratings on unusualness.  We also measured word length, and name length and something called orthographic regularity, which is just  how easy is actually to read.When we looked at the association between all these variables, we showed that the more easy a name was to pronounce and what it was liked.  That effect held, regardless of the length of the name, regardless of orthographic regularity, how easy the name is to read and regardless of how unusual the name was judged - even in the very first study - reasonably information poor - we were still trying to rule out these alternative explanations - because there's past work that shows for example, that people tend to like things that are more usual or more familiar.  So we wanted to rule that out as an alternative possibility.

SACHA PAYNE
This is Up Close, coming to you from the University of Melbourne.  This episode we're discussing the name pronunciation effect with Doctor Simon Laham.  I'm Sacha Payne.So in study two you looked at voting preferences and you used a different sample.  Can you tell me a little bit about that study?   

SIMON LAHAM
Yes, so in study two we had Anglo-Australian participants - people who identified as being Anglo-Australian and again we gave them a list of names but we put a bit of a context on this list and said, imagine this is a list of candidates for an upcoming local election and we gave them a bit of a spiel about the fact that people often make judgements, especially in local council elections, based on very minimal information.  So we gave them sort of a reason to believe that this judgement they were making - this voting judgement - was actually a reasonable one to be making, based on name alone.  So that's how we added a bit of context to that and we chose names for that second study, based on ratings from study one.  So we chose names that participants in the first study thought were quite easy.  The names that were quite difficult, we put those into a ballot and had participants rank the candidates in terms of preference, from one to 12 - I think there were 12 names.What we found is that those candidates with easy to pronounce names received higher preferences - were more likely to be voted for, basically - than those with difficult to pronounce names.

SACHA PAYNE
So perhaps something for politicians all over the world to have a think about.

SIMON LAHAM
Yes, that's true.  I think that's possible, that this plays a bit of a role in voting decisions in the real world.  But there's a lot of other information out there which can potentially swamp it - most obviously which party they belong to.

SACHA PAYNE
Well in fact, in study three, you added mock newspaper articles to the process.  How did that influence the results?

SIMON LAHAM
Yes, we wanted to add even more context in study three and provide people with other information on which to base their judgement.  So in studies one and two, the names were still the only thing to go on.  In study three, we created mock, fake newspaper articles describing a candidate for an upcoming local election.  We gave the persons gender, some family background, some details on some of their policies - so information that might actually be used in making a judgement about who to vote for.  But we vary the name, between conditions.  So some people were presented with a candidate with an easy to pronounce name and other people were presented with a candidate with a difficult to pronounce name.  Everything else was held constant across conditions and we found that the candidate with the easier to pronounce name was more likely to be deemed a good candidate for the upcoming election, compared to the harder to pronounce name.

SACHA PAYNE
And in study number four, you told participants that the surnames were Australian or American - so you gave them even more information.  Why was that information added?

SIMON LAHAM
Right, so it just so happens the way we set up the first three studies, we always had participants making judgements of people or candidates from a different ethnic background to themselves - to the participants.  In the first study we had Asian participants making judgements about Greeks and Polish names and in the second study, and third study, we had Anglo-Australians making judgements about Greek and Polish names and things like that.One reason we wanted to actually see whether this effect was the same when you made judgments of other groups, as to when you make judgements about your own group, was that research tends to show that people have quite rich representations.  There's a lot of knowledge there about their own groups, compared to other groups, and when there's all that extra information, it may be that this subtle effect, gets washed out.So the question was, does this name pronunciation effect work as well, or is it as strong, for one's own groups, as it is for other groups?  That's why we wanted to do this.So what we did was run an experiment where we gave participants a list of 40 names of Anglo-Celtic origin that ranged in ease of pronunciation and we told half the participants that these names were drawn from an Australian census and the other half of participants were drawn from an American census.  All the participants were Australian.  So we have Australians judging other Australians and we have Australians judging Americans.  So we have an in-group condition - a group to which you belong - and an outgroup condition - a group that you don't belong to and we found that the effects - so the relationship between ease of pronunciation and likeability of the names was basically exactly the same size, in both conditions.It's very rare that you get an effect that is exactly the same size to two decimal places.  That's just a chance, but it's - it quite nicely makes our point that this is not restricted to judgements about groups - that is judgements for which there is relatively little in other information to affect your judgement - even in information rich contexts, such as judgements of your own group members.  The effect is still there and still as strong. 

SACHA PAYNE
So what does that suggest about whether these kind of results would change over time or even in different countries?

SIMON LAHAM
I'm not sure that these say much about how these things will change over time.  I think the generalisability from our different samples - our different targets - shows that this effect would hold across different countries, I think.  But this effect I think comes down to the experience that the individual has with working with particular names.So if a person from any ethnic background has had very little experience processing Polish names, for example - I mean I find Polish names quite hard to pronounce - then they might on average, not like those names as much.  But the more experience they have with these things, I think the easier it will get for them to pronounce these names, and potentially the more positive their attitude becomes over time.  So I think that's how things might change over time.  I think the more experience you have working with any stimulus, the easier it should become and the same should hold for names.

SACHA PAYNE
In the final study you analysed law firms.  Why did you choose names in the legal profession?

SIMON LAHAM
We wanted to get out into the real world and see if this actually held up with all the sort of messiness of the real world and one of my colleagues on the paper has a background in law - he's familiar with how law firms work and the hierarchies and so on within law firms.  We really did want a real world context, in which we could see whether name pronunciation really mattered.So what we did in that study was we searched out names of lawyers from law firms across the US and we had those names coded for fluency - so we had people rate how easy these names are to pronounce and then we looked at where the lawyers fell in their organisation's hierarchy and what we found was that lawyers with easy to pronounce names, on average, occupied higher positions in their law firm hierarchies than lawyers with difficult to pronounce names.

SACHA PAYNE
So as countries like Australia and America and many English speaking countries become more culturally diverse and these names thereby become more common, how is that going to change the way people view names?

SIMON LAHAM
Well I think it should give people more experience at pronouncing and working with names from different backgrounds, and in its small way, it could contribute to reducing prejudice.  To the extent that people typically find out-group names more difficult than in-group names, this name pronunciation effect could feed into prejudice.  If you find on average names from your in-group easier to pronounce, you're more likely to favour them, compared to out-group names.  But the more experience you get with names form other groups, the easier these names become to pronounce and the more positive your attitude becomes and so they could potentially reduce prejudice just a little bit, and this not by any means a silver bullet, but I think it's in its own little way, it contributes more experience I think, working with people from other groups - even pronouncing their names I think is a good thing.

SACHA PAYNE
So could parents increase the chances of their child's success for example, by the way they choose their name?
SIMON LAHAM
I'm kind of reluctant to give advice on how people should name their kids.  As I said, this is one small effect among many.  But if I were to name my kids and wanting to give them every possible chance there is, I wouldn't give them a name that people were going to be stumbling across.Of course names carry all sorts of other mean for people, so there might be other reasons to choose particular names that are for identity based reasons or whatever.  But I would say, on average, holding everything else constant, it makes sense not to give your kids names that are really hard to pronounce.

SACHA PAYNE
We'll leave it there Doctor Simon Laham, thank you.

SIMON LAHAM
Thanks very much.

SACHA PAYNE
That was Doctor Simon Laham from the University of Melbourne, speaking with us about the name pronunciation effect.  Relevant links, a full transcript and more info on this episode can be found at our website at upclose.unimelb.edu.au.  Up Close is a production of the University of Melbourne, Australia.  This episode was recorded on March 6, 2012 and our producers were Kelvin Param and Eric van Bemmel.  Audio Engineering by Gavin Nebauer.  Up Close is created Eric van Bemmel and Kelvin Param, I'm Sacha Payne.  Until next time, bye for now.

VOICEOVER
You've been listening to Up Close.  We're also on Twitter and Facebook.  For more info, visit upclose.unimelb.edu.au.  Copyright 2012, the University of Melbourne.


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