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Baby names: the desire to stand out meets a need to fit in

A new study from Carnegie Mellon University suggests that changing trends in baby names are driven by a battle between the desire to stand out and the need to fit in. According to the researchers, the study demonstrates that motives to conform and to be unique interact to produce complex and unpredictable social dynamics.

“I am curious about everything, but I am clueless about popular social trends,” said Russell Golman, associate professor in the Social and Decision Sciences Department at CMU. “My interest was sparked by thinkers in the field of complex systems who study non-equilibrium dynamics in the economy and society.”

The researchers developed a mathematical model to understand why the most popular baby names are always shifting. Professor Golman was curious what factors could be applied to such a model to drive behavior out of what ultimately becomes a steady pattern of change instead of equilibrium.

“I wanted to use math to describe two conflicting motives – wanting to fit in and wanting to stand out at the same time. They push you in opposite directions but you can want both things.”

Professor Golman noted that while the desire to fit in would drive behavior toward the median of the group, the desire to stand out would drive behavior away from the most popular baby names. “Put them together, and they still lead to equilibrium.”  

To break away from equilibrium, the researchers factored in social networks. According to Professor Golman, these networks include communities, neighbors, colleagues, clubs, and other social groups, but not necessarily social media. 

“It was surprising that social networks could make such a big difference,” said Professor Golman. “We modeled the dynamics with a lot of different networks, and not converging to equilibrium is actually pretty typical.”

To test the new model, PhD student Erin Bugbee used the large database of baby names managed by the Social Security Administration for the last century. The analysis revealed an interesting pattern. When the popularity of one name, such as Emily, peaked – parents tended to move on to a similar one, like Emma. 

This strategy allows parents to choose a baby name that is socially acceptable by its similarity to the popular name, but will also stand out in a crowd as being unique.

The study authors concluded that an understanding of both social psychology and social network structure are necessary to explain the emergence of unpredictable cultural trends. 

The research is published in the journal Psychological Review.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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