A great deal of research in behavioral economics has shown how our preferences may be altered by seemingly irrelevant facts. How far might this extend? Might one choose a life's profession based on something as arbitrary as one's last name? Ask my colleague at the University of San Diego, Prof. Law. Or, ask Mrs. Cook, my middle school home economics teacher. Or, ask the English teacher who taught at my high school, Mr. Shakespeare.
A recent article in the New York Times discusses such "aptronyms" (a term coined by the columnist Franklin P. Adams). Here are some of the more famous examples it mentions:
Think of baseball's Cecil Fielder and Rollie Fingers, the news executive Bill Headline, the artist Rembrandt Peale, the poet William Wordsworth, the pathologist (not gynecologist) Zoltan Ovary, the novelist Francine Prose, the poker champion Chris Moneymaker, the musicians Paul Horn and Mickey Bass, the TV weatherman Storm Field, Judge Wisdom, the spokesman Larry Speakes, the dancer Benjamin Millepied, the opera singer Peter Schreier, the British neurologist Lord Brain, the entertainer Tommy Tune, the CBS Television ratings maven David Poltrack.
I would have thought that most such occurrences were just coincidences. The lesson here is likely that we tend to find correlations where none exist. The article suggests (without much analysis) that there may be more to it than that:
Cleveland Kent Evans, a psychologist at Bellevue University in Nebraska, said: "It is certainly possible that when someone's name corresponds with a word which is associated with a particular interest or profession in their culture, it might make them somewhat more likely to go into that profession. But the people involved themselves wouldn't necessarily consciously know that or consciously want to admit it when it would happen."
Dr. Lewis P. Lipsitt, professor emeritus of psychology at Brown, agrees that the influence of a name is often subliminal.
"You wouldn't expect people to reply that they had a strong awareness of moving toward a profession or occupation or a preoccupation just because their name signified that they should," he said, "but I think there is a real process at work to gravitate people toward occupations and preoccupations suggested by their names.