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5 surprising ways your name could affect your chances in court

Posted by Neil Shouse | Jul 07, 2016 | 0 Comments

Justice is supposed to be blind. But as any great attorney can tell you, we form first impressions quickly.

Who sounds more guilty of a crime? Ian Brady or Iain Bradbeer? Andrei Chikatilo or Andy Chick? Tom Horn or Thomas Hassler?1

As much as we like to think of ourselves as open-minded, studies suggest otherwise. Here are five ways your name might affect your outcome in a court case.

5. People with “easy” names are more likable

Studies have shown that we find people more likeable if their name is easy to pronounce. This is known as the “name pronunciation effect.”
Names that are easy to pronounce are easier to comprehend. And when we understand something, we like it better.

4. People with “white”-sounding names are perceived as more competent

In a famous 2004 study, researchers found that people with names that sounded “white” got almost 50% more callbacks for job interviews than people with “black”-sounding names. They concluded that having a white-sounding name was worth up to eight years of work experience.

These results were true even for companies that had "affirmative action" policies or claimed to be "equal opportunity" employers. This suggests that the bias is unconscious.2

3. The meaning of your name matters

Most of the time, we have no idea what people's names mean. But in some cases, it is obvious. And when it is, our perception of the person with that name changes.

In one European study, for instance, researchers found that people with “royal” sounding last names—such as Kaiser ("emperor") or König ("king")—were more likely to be managers than those with “common” names like Koch ("cook") or Bauer ("farmer"). Researchers think this might be because of an automatic link between words and their associated meanings.

2. Gender bias

Gender plays a role in how our names are perceived. Studies have shown that at school boys with names that are frequently given to girls have more—and more disruptive—behavioral problems.

We also tend to think more highly–in business, at least—of men with short, common nicknames, like Bob, Jack, or Bruce. Such nicknames project friendliness. For women, however, full names are often better predictors of success. A LinkedIn study found that female CEOs are more likely to use their full names. Researchers think women may benefit more from more serious and professional sounding names.

And for women in male-dominated fields like science, having a male name—or at least a gender-neutral one—has significant benefits. People in such fields tend to rate people with male-sounding names as more qualified than females—even if their resumes are otherwise the same.

1. We like names that sound like ours

We find people who are similar to us more likable than those who are not. The more similar our names, the more like us we think they are like us. As a result, we tend to prefer people whose names or initials sounds like ours.

So does all this mean you are in trouble if you are facing bank robbery charges and your name is Rob Banks? Not necessarily. Many factors go into a jury's perception of you. Your name is only one of them.

But if you have an unusual name, or one with possible negative associations, you might want to discuss it with your lawyer. Your California criminal defense attorney will anticipate how your name might influence a judge's or jury's perception of you. If necessary, your lawyer can try to counter your name's impact by emphasizing your positive traits or by using a nickname.

  1. Ian Brady is an English serial killer. Iain Bradbeer is an Australian minister. Andrei Chikatilo was a Russian serial killer. Andy Chick is a Nashville-based industrial designer. Tom Horn was a hired killer in the old west. Thomas Jurgen “Icke” Hassler is a former German soccer player or Thomas “Icke” Hassler?
  2. Bertrand, Marianne and Sendhil Mullainathan. 2004. "Are Emily and Greg More Employable Than Lakisha and Jamal? A Field Experiment on Labor Market Discrimination." American Economic Review, 94(4): 991-1013.

About the Author

Neil Shouse

Southern California DUI Defense attorney Neil Shouse graduated with honors from UC Berkeley and Harvard Law School (and completed additional graduate studies at MIT).

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