Extraversion, thy name is Katie. And Jack. And Carter. But not, it turns out, Joanna, Owen, or Lauren: these individuals instead embody different traits, like emotionality and agreeableness.
At least, that’s how people rated the personalities of those names in a recent paper published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. According to the study, we associate the sounds in names with certain traits: names containing k and t sounds are judged as having quite different profiles than those with the more resonant n or l sounds. It will come as no surprise, however, that in the real world Katies are not actually any more likely to be extraverted than Laurens.
Past studies have found that people tend to associate particular sounds with certain shapes: the word “bouba” with a round shape and “kiki” with a spiky one, for example. And we may also instinctively associate shapes and sounds with particular emotional states.
But David Sidhu and colleagues at the University of Calgary were interested in whether people relate sounds to more abstract concepts, like personalities. In particular, the team wanted to know whether we judge people’s personalities differently depending on whether their names contain “sonorants” — resonant or nasal sounds like m, l and n — or “voiceless stops” — short sounds that are formed by blocking air flow in the vocal tract, such as t, k and p.
Across three studies, the team showed a total of 180 participants a series of traits that reflect different aspects of personality like conscientiousness (e.g. “hard-working”) or extraversion (e.g. “social”). At the same time, they displayed names that contained either sonorants (e.g. “Lauren”) or voiceless stops (e.g. “Katie”).
In one study, participants saw a pair of names, and had to pick which one best matched a given trait, while in another they saw a single name, and had to rate how well the trait described that person. In a third study, participants rated the personalities of made-up names with similar sounds: “Mauren” instead of Lauren; “Tatie” instead of Katie.
In all three studies, participants rated sonorant names like Lauren higher on agreeableness, and in two of the studies they also rated them higher in emotionality and conscientiousness. In contrast, voiceless stop names like Katie were rated higher in extraversion.
Why would people rate certain names as being more extraverted or more agreeable? Perhaps, reasoned the researchers, in the real world people’s names truly do reflect their personalities. So in another study, they asked more than 1,000 participants to complete online personality surveys — but found no real evidence for a link between the participants’ personalities and the sounds in their own names.
Another possibility is that people have already made associations between particular names and traits: perhaps they have a particularly agreeable friend called Lauren, for example. But the fact that the researchers saw the same effects even for made-up names suggests that this is not the case.
Instead, the researchers suggest, we may have learned to associate certain sounds with particular emotional contexts. For example, people may tend to use softer, sonorant sounds in calmer situations, and so we perceive those with sonorant sounds in their names — the Laurens and the Owens — as more agreeable and conscientious. Alternatively, the relationship between sound and personality could be more metaphorical: the short abrupt sounds in “Jack” and “Katie”, for instance, might bring to mind the quick, bouncy energy of someone with a more extraverted personality.
Whatever the reason, it seems unlikely that the information gleaned from the sounds in a name will have much impact on how we judge a person in the real world, where we usually have a lot of other information about them. But knowing how a sound brings to mind other characteristics could be useful in some situations. A company naming its product probably should consider whether the sounds in the name will affect people’s perceptions, suggest the researchers, while an author might want to give their protagonist a name that fits their personality.