Why do parents choose a baby name?
Most would say because they “like it.” I say it has a lot to do with “signaling” something to other people. Parents may try to signal to friends or family. They may be signaling to a child’s future peers, employers and spouses information about social class, race, political persuasion, education level, or religion. Some parents may choose religious names to sound pious or honor God; celebrity or presidential names to identify with that person; unique names and spellings to show individualism or free-thinking; personally meaningful names to appear thoughtful; ethnic or non-ethnic names to associate or disassociate with a group; high socioeconomic names to associate with upper-classes; family or friend names to signal remembrance or affection; traditional names to effuse conservatism or non-weirdness; or literary and historical names to appear intellectual. There are umpteen different ways parents can signal and no doubt much of it is sub-conscious.
In fact, when I hear friends’ babies’ names I usually consider what that tells me about the parents. I wonder what exactly they are trying to signal and to whom.
But, if I want to know how much of naming decisions in general are driven by signaling versus “liking” a name, it isn’t easy. Disentangling these two effects is almost impossible because different parents will feel differently about any given name. There are no universally “good” and “bad” names.
Using Presidential Names
My solution to this problem is to find a set of names for which there is some common agreement – call it a name’s “public value.” For these names, parents would presumably choose it more if the public value is high and less if the value is low.
What I do is look at presidential names from FDR to Bush II. I then estimate how changes in a president’s approval rating impacts the number of times their name is given to a baby while they are in office. The idea is that the approval rating is a good measure of changes in the public value of the name.
What I find is striking. First, each 1% increase in a president’s approval rating increases the number of babies given any of his names (e.g. William or Jefferson or Clinton) by about 33. If his approval rating goes down 1%, then 33 fewer babies get his name. This means that a pretty standard 20% slide in a president’s approval rating translates to about 660 fewer babies getting a name that year.
Second, parents strongly avoid a presidential name while he is in office. For the years a president is in office, approximately 1700 fewer babies are given his name. It seems parents are risk-averse and want to avoid the potential for presidential scandal tarnishing their child’s name. Or, they don’t want people asking if they named little “Walker” after the president. Over eight-years this means about 13,600 fewer babies with the current president’s name.
Taken together, this shows good evidence that parents do signal. These results are very large and statistically significant. Of course, I just look at one set of names. It is very probable that parents – no matter what name they choose – are signaling something to someone.
Also, if you liked this, here is a previous post where I showed some fun relationships between current events and baby names. If you want to see my paper with all the details in this post, let me know.