Hidden Influence

Thursday, April 11, 2013

This interview originally aired live on April 11, 2013. An edited version was aired as part of a special episode of The Brian Lehrer Show on August 2, 2013. 

Adam Alter, assistant professor in marketing at NYU's Stern School of Business and the author of Drunk Tank Pink: And Other Unexpected Forces that Shape How We Think, Feel, and Behave, explains some of the unconscious workings of our brain that explain why pictures of light bulbs make us more creative and pink paint on the wall is calming.

Drunk Tank Pink: And Other Unexpected Forces that Shape How We Think, Feel, and Behave

By Adam Alter

Chapter 1 Excerpt


When Carl Jung, one of the most famous psychiatrists of the 20th century, once wondered why he was so fixated on the concept of rebirth, the answer arrived in a flash of insight: his name meant “young,” and from birth he had been preoccupied by the concepts of youth, aging, and rebirth. Other renowned psychiatrists of the early 20th century embarked on very different research programs, but, as Jung explained, “Herr Freud (whose name means Joy in German) champions the pleasure principle, Herr Adler (Eagle) the will to power, Herr Jung (Young) the idea of rebirth.” As far as Jung was concerned, the names we’re given at birth blaze a trail that our destinies tread for years to come.


Many years later, in 1994, a contributor to the Feedback column in the New Scientist magazine labeled the phenomenon nominative determinism, literally meaning “name-driven outcome.” The writer noted that two urology experts, Doctors A. J. Splatt and D. Weedon, had written a paper on the problem of painful urination in the British Journal of Urology. Similar so-called aptonyms abound. The current Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales is Justice Igor Judge; his colleague, Lord Justice Laws, is a judge in the Court of Appeals. In the realm of athletic pursuits, Anna Smashnova is a professional Israeli tennis player, Layne Beachley is a seven-time world champion surfer, Derek Kickett was an Australian Rules footballer, Stephen Rowbotham was an Olympic rower for Britain, and Usain Bolt is the fastest man in the world over the 100 meter and 200 meter distances. Some names come before less auspicious destinies: Christopher Coke is a notorious Jamaican drug dealer and the rapper Black Rob was sentenced to seven years in prison for grand larceny. Meanwhile, Jaime Sin overcame his inauspicious name to become Cardinal Sin, Archbishop of Manila. It’s tempting to dismiss these anecdotes as scattered coincidences, but researchers have shown that our names take root deep within our mental worlds, drawing us magnetically towards the concepts they embody.

Indeed, names convey so much information that it’s easy to forget that they don’t have natural meanings like, say, numbers do. The number 10 will always have the same meaning regardless of whether you call it ten, diez, dix, or dieci, which is why scientists seeking extraterrestrial contact devise mathematical languages to communicate with alien life forms. A single pulse of noise will always signal one, or unity, whereas two pulses will always signal two. That universal property doesn’t apply to names, which are language-bound. Jung’s witty observation that Freud’s name compelled him to “champion the pleasure principle” only registers if you know that Freud means “joy” in German. Names are only powerful, then, when they’re associated with other more meaningful concepts. Parents from certain cultures embrace this idea when naming their children. The Nigerian president, Goodluck Jonathan, grew into his name handsomely, and his wife Patience Jonathan was named for a trait that first wives sorely need as their husbands ascend the political ladder. According to one Nigerian proverb, “when a person is given a name, his gods accept it,” which explains why exhausted parents sometimes name their children Dumaka (literally, “help me with her hands”) or Obiageli (“one who has come to eat”). The Mossi tribespeople of Burkina Faso have taken nominative determinism one step further, christening their children with strikingly morbid names in a desperate bid to placate fate. Parents who have already lost more than one child (the Mossi infant mortality rate is tragically high) have been known to name their subsequent children Kida (“he is going to die”), Kunedi (“dead thing”) or Jinaku (“born to die”).

Other parents do everything they can to protect their children from the tide of nominative determinism. In his native Russian tongue, Vyacheslav Voronin’s name means “slave.” As far as associations go, that’s a significant cross to bear, so Voronin and his wife, Marina Frolova, decided to save their newborn son a similar indignity. Slight and sandy-haired, the boy was born in the summer of 2002 during a spate of terrible Russian floods. True to their promise, Vyacheslav and Marina chose a generic name designed to be devoid of meaning: BOHdVF260602. Although the name seems meaningless, BOHdVF260602 is an acronym that stands for “Biological Object Human descendent of the Voronins and Frolovs, born on June 26 2002.” For the sake of practicality, young BOHdVF260602 responds to the name “Boch” (roughly pronounced Bortch). Vyacheslav claims that Boch’s name “will make his life easier, so he won’t interact with those idiots who think one’s name defines his appearance. Every person who gets a traditional name is automatically linked to his historic background. This way, my son will be devoid of his father’s legacy.” People name their children using all sorts of rules and approaches. Sometimes they borrow names from historic or literary heroes, sometimes they perpetuate ancestral naming traditions, and sometimes they just like how a name sounds or the fact that it reminds them of something appealing. In all cases, though, the otherwise meaningless name acquires meaning because it’s associated with other concepts that are themselves meaningful. The power of association explains why Adolf, a common boy’s name once associated with Swedish and Luxembourger kings, plummeted in popularity during and after World War II. Meanwhile, the name Donald fell from favor when Donald Duck appeared in the 1930s, and parents stopped naming their sons Ebenezer in the 1840s when Charles Dickens’ newly published book, A Christmas Carol, featured the miserly Ebenezer Scrooge. What makes Boch’s name so unusual is that his parents went to great lengths to avoid choosing a name with even minimal associations. Though Vyacheslav was determined to spare Boch the teasing that he endured as a boy, it’s hard to imagine Boch emerging from childhood without being teased about his name at least occasionally. The odds are stacked higher still, as the Russian birth registry has refused to record Boch’s full name. According to Tatyana Baturina, a representative of the registry, “You can call your child a ‘stool’ or a ‘table.’ A child has a right to such a name. But one has to use common sense. Why should one suffer from the parents’ choice? He will go to kindergarten, and then to school, and he will be mocked, all because of his name.” It’s not immediately clear that naming a boy “Stool” demonstrates more common sense than naming the boy “BOHdVF260602,” and he’d be unlikely to escape torment with either name.

Scattered anecdotes aside, do names really affect major life outcomes? Would Usain Bolt run more slowly with the name Usain Plod? Would urologists Splatt and Weedon have pursued different medical specialties with less “urological” names? These thought experiments are impossible to conduct in reality, so researchers have devised other clever techniques to answer the same question.

Reprinted from Drunk Tank Pink: And Other Unexpected Forces that Shape How We Think, Feel, and Behave 

Copyright 2013 by Adam Alter. With permission of the publisher, Penguin Press HC


Adam Alter

Comments [15]

Easr from NY

When I was a graduate student at NYU in the late 1960's the chair of the Anatomy Dept of the NYU Dental School was Dr.Butcher.

Apr. 30 2013 09:42 PM

To clarify, this is indeed the text of Alter's book. It just happens to be on a topic similar to that of yesterday's "What's in a Name" segment.

Apr. 11 2013 02:05 PM
Tony from Canarsie

thatgirl from manhattan - thanks for the info.

Apr. 11 2013 12:06 PM
John from Wantagh

Re: Mr. Alter's comment about George Eastman naming his camera; in the Smithsonian, it is well-documented that, yes he wanted a unique name for his product, but the name Eastman chose was influenced most by the sound of the shutter as one took a picture: "Ko - Dak!" Indeed, that is how the earliest Kodak cameras were labeled.

Apr. 11 2013 11:50 AM
thatgirl from manhattan

Tony from Canarsie - The text above is not Alter's. The webmaster managed to drop the book excerpt from the "what's in a name?" segment/guest onto the wrong page! I started to read it, too.

Apr. 11 2013 11:46 AM

To the lady who liked White... For me whiteness signifies non-creativity, sterility and death. I am extremely uncomfortable in "White spaces" - it's far from a "turn on" for me.

Apr. 11 2013 11:45 AM
Andy UK from United Kingdom

The speaker is really overestimating a conflictual area of research (dual processing literature). Many of the most counterintuitive effects of priming and behaviour are difficult to replicate. In particular the colour priming research is a big mess.

Apr. 11 2013 11:43 AM
Sheldon from Brooklyn

The NYPD have looked more intimidating since they switched their shirts from light blue to a darker shade.

Apr. 11 2013 11:42 AM
thatgirl from manhattan

Woman from Westfield - You're missing the point. This isn't about your opinion of color--it's about what studies have proven over time. "White is sexy?" Lay off the InStyle Magazine and celeb stylists; but keep on with that valium--it's really working for you!

Apr. 11 2013 11:42 AM

What about a recent study that showed that some women can see additional colors that aren't visible to the rest of us because they have additional rods or cones or something like that. What is the significance of this hidden world of color?

Apr. 11 2013 11:42 AM
Amy from Manhattan

Brian just mentioned orange. I've read that orange promotes feeling hungry & that's why many fast-food places have a lot of orange in their color schemes.

Apr. 11 2013 11:41 AM
Sheldon from Brooklyn

When Liverpool FC changed to all red in the 60's - they were successful beyond measurement, then it wore off.....

Apr. 11 2013 11:40 AM
Christine from Westchester

But theories and are not fact. So what are the facts? How did the guest test his postions and prove out the facts?

Apr. 11 2013 11:40 AM
Michael from Passaic

Is it true that "green rooms" are used in show business to calm down guests on talk shows before they go on air?

Also, what are the data or the support for 'color therapy'? (Some psychologists advocate it.)

Apr. 11 2013 11:36 AM
Tony from Canarsie

Mr. Alter text above lost me at "Carl Jung," who was one of the biggest quacks of the twentieth century.

Apr. 11 2013 11:20 AM

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