Ever met someone named Paul who doesn’t look like a Paul or a Lisa who doesn’t seem very Lisa-esque? It’s the sort of thing that comes up at least a few times in a lifetime, but it’s not one of your more pervasive social problems.
A new study shows that, by some weird bewildering confluence of self-fulfilling prophecy and powerful cultural messaging, complete strangers can pick your correct given name out of a lineup of five just by looking at your face — about 35 percent of the time in one study. (Random chance would be correct about 20 percent of the time, as NPR notes.)
In another experiment by the same researchers, a computer given two options could accurately match a face to a name 60 percent of the time.
This is batshit.
The research, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, consisted of eight experiments in two countries involving 94,000 faces to figure out how often people and computers could match a face to its correct name — something they call the face-name matching effect. The results were country-specific, which is to say people in France could match French people with their names but not Israelis, and vice versa. The researchers write that overall, the results “suggest that facial appearance represents social expectations of how a person with a specific name should look.”
How is this even possible? Consider what’s at work here. Most of us are named before we even exist, with parents deliberating our chosen names based on a myriad of factors before we’ve even drawn our first real-world breath. You might be named David because your parents are Jewish, or Maude because your parents loved the movie Harold and Maude. They can’t possibly know you’ll be like a David or a Maude or an Elizabeth or Mark or Sarah.
Only the nutso thing is, you will be exactly like a David or a Maude or an Elizabeth or a Mark or a Sarah, because you’ll adapt to whatever stereotypes are associated with the name you’re given — quite literally through your face, such as the area around your eyes, or how you manipulate the corners of your mouth.
In other words, you will make your face look like the name you are given. The changes will be based on the cultural associations with that name, which you will slowly adapt to over your life. Say a child is named Joy, lead author Yonat Zwebner — a social psychologist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem — said to NPR.
“The moment she’s born, her parents and society treat her in a way that befits that name,” he told NPR. “They say, you really are so joyful, smiling just like your name. She develops a certain look maybe because she is smiling more because of all the positive feedback she gets when she smiles.”
They also call this the “Dorian Gray Effect,” after the Oscar Wilde character whose portrait alone ages to reflect his various nefarious indulgences over the course of his life. “We propose,” they write, “that one’s given name may have a Dorian Gray effect on one’s face.”
Are all Jennifers identifiable by the name’s associations with an easygoing, pleasant everygirl? Even if all Jennifers look different?! While this boggles the mind, the news here is ultimately good. If we all end up looking like our names anyway, then there can be no such thing as the wrong name — this should provide great assurance to anyone breeding who is faced with the deeply fraught process of choosing a baby name.
Unless somehow you’ve missed all the social and cultural cues about how you should behave based on your name — or you’ve decided to willfully go against the name-grain and act sour and prickly in spite of being named Joy — most of us will reach our final name destination, whether we wanted to or not. (And if we don’t, there’s always changing it.)