Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Accidents of Conformity

What's in a name? A classic paper in the labor econ literature is Bertrand and Mullainathan's 2003 field experiment in which they mailed out resumes to firms. The only substantive difference between the matched clusters of resumes were the names: some had stereotypically Caucasian-sounding names; others had stereotypically African-American-sounding names.

They were able to reject the null hypothesis that randomly-selected HR professionals (in Chicago and Boston) used no race-based selection heuristics to screen preliminary job applicants.

It is not my purpose here to comment on the method they used, nor shall I worry you with how their results have been improperly extrapolated among interested parties. Instead, let's accept that, indeed, the results are what they say on the tin: Emily and Greg are indeed more employable than Lakisha and Jamal. Given that this is true, is the decision to foist a disadvantageous name upon a child who does not know any better a euvoluntary one?

It may or may not surprise you to discover that not all countries are as lax as the US when it comes to naming children. I still recall my shock and horror when I found that Lithuania (to give an example near and dear to my heart) maintains a ledger with state-approved first names (surnames, too, but that's another issue). If you try to name your kid "Samuel" in LT, your application for a birth certificate (hence, passport) will get bounced. Or at least that's how it was ca. 2001. Maybe they've changed the statues since. My Lithuanian isn't good enough to track it down. Point is, we Yankees may have a propensity to take our liberty in naming our kids for granted in a way that might bemuse the rest of the world. And strict prudence would predict that given the Bertrand & Mullainathan results, some of the entries on the top 1000 list of baby names for 2012 (SSA) would probably have to be seriously reconsidered (how does "Xzavier" make the list at #614? Have you ever met a "Xzavier"?). But prudence doesn't rule. Only the starchiest of economists would assume that it does. Loyalty matters. Group identity matters. Pride matters. Heck, even plain-jane "coolness" matters (if I thought I could get away with it, I'd name my next kid "Banjo Mechasplosion Firenado Charterplane Lionstrangler In The Great Vast Expanse of Outer Space Wilson, Esq."). Methodological individualism loses no analytical power (and may indeed gain quite a bit) from acknowledging these simple, ordinary psychological observations.

And I think most regular folk acknowledge these observations. At least here in the states, there's a pretty strong presumption of liberty when it comes to naming your kids, even when it runs the risk of harming them. I do then wonder how and why it is that the same culture that suffers a kid to be saddled with a name yanked out of a popular TV show will suffer rubbish like a staged playground kidnapping in the name of protecting kids from a virtually non-existent threat (h/t L. Skenazy).

"Won't somebody think of the children?" Good idea. Start with your own, demonstrate a journeyman's understanding of everyday Bayesian reasoning, and then maybe we can have a little chat about whether or not you're adequately qualified to lecture others on their own hazard assessment. A sensible precautionary principle demands nothing less.

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Do you have suggestions on where we could find more examples of this phenomenon?