How baby names reflect cultural change

Posted on April 5, 2012 by



What’s in a name that allows it to spread widely across large populations and be copied by others?  While many people have conventional names like ‘Mary’ or ‘David’ there are also a diverse variety of names in use today that are in strong contrast to the most popular names generations before them.  The choices of names tend to follow general principles of fashion or other cultural trends.

Globalisation — the increasing economic interdependencies of countries throughout the world — is often known as a homogenising force in society, meaning that it tends to make culture less diverse and more the same.  As globalisation increases in society it would seem that popular culture would become more homogenised, but what researchers from Tipping Points have found is actually the opposite — globalisation can increase cultural diversity.

While globalisation makes things more uniform it can also bring different forms of culture together leading to diversity such as the inventiveness of baby names which has changed dramatically in the US until relatively recently.  This has been shown to be the case in the US for both popular girls’ and boys’ names.  Using baby name data from the United States Social Administration, Prof Alex Bentley and Dr Paul Ormerod looked at how naming in the US is copied and has moved from homogeneity (cultural sameness) to heterogeneity (cultural variety).

Most popular baby names for girls and boys in 1960 vs. 2009 showing the increase in the variety of names across different states. (Advances in Complex Systems)

In 1960 in the US baby names were mostly the same and had little variation from state to state.  Mary was the most popular girls’ name in nearly every state in America with the exception of Susan in the Northwest and Northeast.  The same was true with boys’ names where David, James, Michael, John and Robert mostly dominated.  Some of these names were most popular in different parts of the country such as David in all states west of the Mississippi, but there was still little diversity overall.  This shifted drastically by 2009.  Mary started to compete with a variety of other girls’ names.  Boys’ names throughout the country became diverse although some conventions remained in the South and Northeast, but in states west of the Mississippi the most popular names that dominated decades before had given way to a range of others.  There were also sharp contrasts between names in different states that were never present before.

According to Bentley, this research shows that ‘cultural differences can arise through the combination of (a) random events (different names being invented all over the country) which introduce variation, plus (b) copying of those names, which amplifies those random differences and potentially grows small incidental differences into major ones’.  The results from their statistical model bear resemblance to Thomas Schelling’s segregation model from 1971 where differences in popular names increase suddenly in 2009 from state to state.

This chart shows the degrees of baby name inventiveness throughout the US for both time periods.

How inventive people were with naming in 1960 and 2009. The ‘warmer’ or red and yellow colours indicate more inventiveness while the ‘colder’ blue and green colours indicate less. (Advances in Complex Systems)

What could have caused such a sudden shift in cultural change that rapidly spread throughout the entire country?

Chart showing inventiveness in new names over the past century (grey line – girls, black line – boys). (Advances in Complex Systems)

In order to answer this question it helps to look at why people name each other the way they do in the first place.

Scientists (such as psychologist Steven Pinker) have found that naming connects us to society in a way that gives us a sense of belonging, but also allows us to express a sense of uniqueness, that who we are is special although we live in a world with many others.  It is this diversity or uniqueness of human expression that has the potential to influence the many.  While simply being unique alone may not be enough to incite a new cultural shift in society, in some cases studying the minority of diversity within a population is key to revealing how changes in human behaviour spread over time.  In past studies researchers have indicated that truly original behaviour, which makes up 10 percent of the behaviour of a population, influences the whole regardless of its origin.  This diverse minority creates a change (a new name for example) that the rest of the population copy.  Social copying is found not only in humans, but primates and other animals as well.  Bentley and colleagues have found copying central to cultural evolution.  Other researchers have come upon similar findings.

A study that looked at human behaviour in computer game tournaments found that the winning strategy used by players was copying the successful strategies of others focusing on recent successes while ignoring older information.  Social learning through copying was essential for understanding how to win the game.  Likewise, in the spread of baby names, Bentley and Ormerod think that social learning is what allowed for the increase in naming diversity, although immigration and the spread of multiple media may also have allowed individuals to copy each other in the first place.

While globalisation has created a more homogenised society, it has also made the world far more interconnected than ever before.  This interconnectivity is accelerating how people copy one another whether it’s through social networking technologies, through more contact with cultures different from their own or a range other ways.  As these interconnections increase over time, cultural diversity could likely continue to grow more complex creating new forms of cultural expression influencing how people interact with and experience the world.


Bentley A and Ormerod P. ‘Accelerated innovation and increased spatial diversity of US popular culture’. Advances in Complex Systems (ACS).

Why Copy Others? Insights from the Social Learning Strategies Tournament. Science

Rise of health scares has social basis. Physorg

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