On February 27th, 2017 we learned about

We shape and style ourselves to meet cultural expectations for our names

It’s not obvious, but my daughter is named after a fruit. My son, thanks to a bit of uncertainty on his parents’ part, goes by his middle name. As such, both kids were very interested in how they might fit into a study on how well people can guess a stranger’s name based on a photo of their face. Even if their unusual names were edge-cases, the study found that as long as you share your local culture’s expectations about your name, other people will be able to read those ideas in your appearance. Basically, it’s easy to spot a ‘Bob’ as long as we all agree what a ‘Bob’ should look like, including Bob themselves.

Putting names to portraits

The study had a variety of variations, but the core idea was to show people photos of strangers, and have them pick each stranger’s name from a list of five options. Even with faces that had some features hidden, sometimes revealing as little as just hairstyles, people could generally pick the correct name around 35 percent of the time, which was significantly better than they would have done just guessing randomly. Some conditions could push that number higher, but overall, researchers were impressed at how well people could assign the correct name to the photo.

By testing different combinations of features in different rounds of testing, researchers were able to isolate a few influences on how well we can pick a name. The biggest factor was the test-subject’s native culture. French people could do quite well assigning French names, Israelis could assign Israeli names, but pan-cultural names fell apart. This strongly suggests that people were reacting to attributes embedded in the names that were culturally assigned, rather than innate in the phonemes of the name, or anatomical features of a face. In the end, the French test subjects had the easiest time spotting Veroniques, and the Israelis could easily name Toms, probably thanks to expectations about those names, more than the photos.

Fitting your face to societal standards

This isn’t to say that names are entirely in the eye of the beholder. There were cues in the faces, and they were probably unconsciously developed as those people grew up thinking about their own names. Analysis found that people with matching names had the most physical similarities around the eyes and mouths, which are muscles that can be controlled. If you grew up being taught your name represented something light and playful, you’d probably hold your face accordingly, eventually growing smile lines and wrinkles associated with happier emotions. The fact that hairstyles were found to be strong indicators for names fits this model, as hair is another feature people can control, and likely unintentionally style to fit their self image as a Veronique or Tom, for instance.

This isn’t totally definitive, as name popularity may have allowed people to eliminate some options from each multiple choice list, making guessing correctly a little easier. However, computer algorithms were taught to successfully guess names as well (although it only had to pick between two names per photo,) which suggests that there are some wider patterns to be recognized. This may help program facial recognition software at some point, but right now it’s a weird reminder of how we shape our own faces, sometimes to match expectations or ideas that were selected before we were even born. Hopefully my kids don’t mind too much.

Source: Your Name Might Shape Your Face, Researchers Say by Angus Chen, NPR Shots

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