“That’s a pretty name.”
For people with unusual names, that’s the polite refrain from strangers who are unsure how to spell or pronounce it. Still, it’s hard not to view that pleasantry as a compliment. A name is a strong social symbol, and people tend to internalize it as part of their identity.
“Name-liking” is a well-researched phenomenon: People tend to like their own name and prefer the letters in their name, regardless of the external likability of the name or letters. Name-liking is associated with self-esteem, subjective well-being, and a host of other positive attributes. It also shields you from threats to your self concept and awareness of your own mortality. It’s more than just narcissism; these are evolutionarily adaptive traits.
"Personal names may have adaptive value due to, for example, their crucial role in human interactions. Liking for one’s name may suggest better psychological well-being and, therefore, more psychological resources to cope with life difficulties."
Beijing-based researchers went a step further by examining the possible influence of genetics on name-liking. In a study published recently in Personality and Individual Differences, they write, “Given the prevalence and adaptive importance of name-liking, people may wonder whether it is heritable, and furthermore, whether its link with subjective well-being is genetically based.”
They looked at 304 pairs of Chinese twins, a sample that was “socio-demographically representative” of Beijing adolescents. Half of the twin pairs were identical twins (100 percent genetically identical) and the other half were fraternal twins (an average of 50 percent genetically identical). Each participant completed surveys on name-liking, life satisfaction, and affective well-being.
In twin studies, researchers can tease out the effects of genetics, shared environmental factors (for younger twins, typically their family environment), and non-shared environmental factors (school, social group, etc.) using statistical analysis. If a trait’s scores are more similar among identical twins than among fraternal twins, then the trait is linked to genetics.
The study was the first to show the correlation between subjective well-being and name-liking in the Chinese population. It confirms previous studies showing that people who like their names also tend to like their lives.
It’s also the first-ever study to show that genes have a moderate-to-strong influence on name-liking. The results show that genes account for 47 percent of variance in name-liking, shared environment accounts for zero percent, and non-shared environment accounts for 53 percent.
So how do genes affect something as subjective as our perception of our own names? Research has shown that people’s brains activate in a specific way when presented with their names, so genes affecting neural processes could be the answer, according to the study.
“Personal names may have adaptive value due to, for example, their crucial role in human interactions. Liking for one’s name may suggest better psychological well-being and, therefore, more psychological resources to cope with life difficulties," the authors conclude. In other words, don't worry if your teenage daughter comes home with her signature scrawled all over her folders and notebooks. You gave her that name, and probably her enjoyment of it, too.