science of us

When Your Name Doesn’t Feel Like You

Photo: Michael Cogliantry/Getty Images

For years growing up, I was constantly frustrated by my name: It was constantly misspelled and mispronounced. It never appeared on any of those key chains or toothbrushes that Ashleys and Sarahs and regular Carries could buy at souvenir shops. And worst of all, it looked a lot like “Carl,” leading to a handful of humiliating moments involving substitute teachers taking attendance. None of it was Earth-shattering stuff, but when you’re a tween and everything is the worst, it was, well, the worst.

As an adult, I’ve mostly made my peace with it (though the “Carl” thing still pops up in emails and on Starbucks cups, and it’s never not annoying). Cari’s fine. It works for me.

Sometimes, though, people don’t grow into their names, but instead wear them around like ill-fitting clothes: always just a little uncomfortable with what they’re presenting to the rest of the world, and aware that it doesn’t quite seem natural or right. A Twitter thread last week highlighted this feeling:

When you zoom out and think about it, it’s kind of crazy that more people don’t feel this way. A name — just one, that you’re stuck with for life, chosen by someone else — is kind of an absurd leap of faith: Here, human we have not yet met, this arbitrary bucket of letters we’ve assembled will both capture and become your essence.

And it really will, at least in the eyes of everyone around you. We attach significant meaning to names when forming impressions, says psychologist Adam Alter, a marketing professor at NYU who’s studied people’s name preferences. He offers up an extreme hypothetical case: Say “one set of parents named their children Yes and No,” he says. “Imagine having to present yourself as Yes versus No for your childhood, adolescence, and then into adulthood. One major effect is that it changes how you present yourself to others as you imagine how they’ll respond to your name,” which, in turn, influences how they actually do respond to you.

But if you feel like the name doesn’t really represent who you are — maybe you’re a kind of cynical Joy, or a nerdy Brock — two things can happen: You end up feeding off of people’s responses to present a self that doesn’t feel entirely authentic, or you chafe against the impression your name puts forth, subvert the associated expectations, and feel trapped by a label that doesn’t seem accurate.

Either way, it’s a situation that can create a sort of constant impostor syndrome. That was the case for journalist Anneli Star Jocelyn Rufus, born Sharon Joy Rufus, who changed her name in her 20s after decades of feeling like her given one was all wrong. “It had a weird mushy sound to me. It sounded like a person eating wet cereal,” she says. “If I had better self-esteem, I would have perhaps had a better image of it. But to walk around with that, it just felt like being an impostor.”

Tracing a link between who a person is and what they’re called is a concept known in psychology research as “nominative determinism,” or the idea that a person’s name can shape who they become. (Seemingly serendipitous jobs are a particularly fun offshoot of nominative determinism, with some psychologists theorizing that we, as inherently self-absorbed creatures, are drawn to occupations that sound like us: sprinter Usain Bolt, poet William Wordsworth.) A 2011 study that Alter co-authored found that we tend to think more favorable of people whose names are easier to pronounce — and that those people, in turn, are more likely to achieve professional success than their similarly qualified but more tongue-twisty counterparts.

One 2015 study even found that people look like their names: When participants saw a photo of a stranger and were asked to guess the person’s name from a list of choices, they picked the right one at a rate significantly higher than chance. (In one, for example, the correct name of Dan was picked out of the pool — which also included Jacob, Josef, and Nathaniel — 38 percent of the time, as opposed to the 25 percent that would indicate random guessing.)

The explanation that the study authors offered for their results echoes Alter’s point: In most cases, a name is “a self-fulfilling prophecy,” explains co-author Yonat Zwebner, a marketing researcher at Wharton. “Your parents and society treat you according to the spirit of your name, and then you grow up and you fulfill those expectations, eventually even the way you look.” In the study, Zwebner and her colleagues attributed their “face-name matching effect” to both factors within the person’s control, like hairstyle, and factors created by life experience, like smile lines.

But in some cases, they added, a name can instead be a “self-defeating prophecy,” in which we adjust our appearance in subtle ways to intentionally rebel against a name that doesn’t fit. It’s still nominative determinism, sort of — your name is still influencing your choices, just in the opposite direction from the way it ordinarily might. In a way, a name that feels like a mismatch might be a more powerful force than one that fits: What some people take for granted is instead a consistent front-of-mind reminder to constantly consider, and either adjust or double down, on how you see yourself.

When Your Name Doesn’t Feel Like You