Pelham, undeterred by the criticism, has continued to build his case. “People kept critiquing the work and saying it’s crazy,” he said of the nominative determinism backlash.
To address critics’ concerns, he needed a way to look at a trend over a long period of time to show if a name-career connection really exists across generations, or whether it was the product of name popularity at a given time. He also needed to know how a person’s race factored into career choice.
In 2013, he struck research gold. The 1940 US census records had just been published in detail online – a treasure trove of information relevant to his purposes. While basic statistics are available soon after a census, the complete copies of records with names, addresses, races, and so on are often published much later.
Rather than focusing on given names, Pelham and fellow researcher Mauricio Carvallo identified 11 target occupational surnames to see if men with these names were more likely to pursue the careers their names referenced: Baker, Barber, Butcher, Butler, Carpenter, Farmer, Foreman, Mason, Miner, Painter and Porter.
Not only were names and occupations listed in that census, but ethnicity and education level were included, allowing Pelham to consider two very important control variables. “We looked at every major male occupation and found that for each occupation, men that had that name were overrepresented in that data,” he says. “To be sure these findings were not an artifact of overzealous data fitting, we replicated them using the 1880 US Census and the 1911 English Census.”
Publishing their study in the journal Self and Identity, Pelham and Carvallo found that “men were 15.5% more likely to work in occupations that bore their surname than they should have been based on chance.” What’s more, white men were about “30% more likely to work in an occupation whose title matched their surname.” When they went to the 1880 US Census, the same basic effects appeared, with men about 11% more likely to work in job matching their surname. Replication of the England census was also “significant” overall.
Because of the historical nature of occupational surnames – names assigned to people based on their occupations – can’t one assume that a person has just inherited both his or her parent’s name and occupation? Pelham says that’s highly unlikely. “Even if you make the assumption that half the time men do exactly what their fathers did, the effect would be absolutely negligible,” he says.
When implicit egotism backfires
Not everyone is a candidate for nominative determinism though, especially when a person rejects an element of his or her own identity. Pelham found that some demographic groups, including racial minorities and women from cultures where married women adopt their husbands' surnames, were less likely to have a job that matches their surname exactly.
Women who did follow the nominative determinism trend tended to be older, married for a long time or widowed, and they favoured female-dominant professions like cooks. He noted that the large majority of cooks named Cook were women in the 1940 US Census data, despite the fact that there were three times as many men in the workforce at that time.
Black men were less likely have careers similar to their names, too, suggesting that white men would have held a more favourable implicit self-association, especially during years when ethnic-sounding names were viewed negatively. “You almost stereotype yourself,” Pelham says, suggesting that they may be “pushing away from ethnic identity.”
‘It threatens your sense of free will’
So, if our names can drive our career decisions, as Pelham and Limb suggest, what does that say about free will?
“It’s classical conditioning. It’s not spiritual or mythical; it’s psychological principle,” Pelham says. “It threatens your sense of free will. I don’t think we never have free will, but there are some times when we don’t. It makes perfect evolutionary sense.”
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