What Age is in a Name?

Sociological Science

Social scientists often describe fictional people in survey stimuli using first names. However, which name a researcher chooses may elicit nonrandom impressions, which could confound results. Although past research has examined how names signal race and class, very little has examined whether names signal age, which is a highly salient status characteristic involved in person construal. I test the perceived demographics of 228 American names. I find that most strongly signal age, with older-sounding names much more likely to be perceived as white than as black. Furthermore, participants’ perceptions of the age of a name poorly match with the true average birth year of people with that name, suggesting that researchers cannot simply use birth records as a proxy for perceived age. To assist researchers in name selection, I provide a set of candidate names that strongly signal a matrix of combined age, race, and gender categories.