Unique baby names are more prevalent during times of economic hardship

A recent study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology has found that parents were less likely to give their babies common names in times of economic hardship, based on baby names before, during, and after the Great Recession.

Individuals and culture influence each other all the time. Important parts of culture is the importance placed on the individual versus the community, as well as economic factors like unemployment rate and income inequality. This study examined the effects of economic and cultural conditions on behavior by analyzing baby names. The percentage of babies receiving common names is indicative of a more community based mentality, whereas babies with uncommon or unique names point to individualism. Analyzing names is a useful way to examine behavior, as “naming practices are behaviors embedded with cultural values.” Naming a child not only reflects social and cultural values, but also acts as the first act of transferring one’s culture onto a new generation.

There are three possible models for changes in naming over time. The first model, the Communal Deprivation model, predicts that parents will name children common names during recession years, as economic hardship decreases individualism. The second model, the Threat Model, suggests that economic hardship leads to more individualized names. Terror management theory suggests that threats (possibly including economic hardship) move people to value the parts of their culture that provide meaning. Finally, the Individualism Model suggests that increasing cultural individualism and its after-effect will extend the decline in common names into and after the recession.

The current research examined “the link between economic conditions and naming behavior by examining trends before, during, and after the Great Recession and links between economic conditions and naming behaviors over a longer time period.” The study used the names from the Social Security Administration, which has the names of 350 million American babies born between 1880 and 2015. The study controlled for immigration, both legal and illegal. Researchers took into account two states, California (where housing prices dropped) and Texas (where housing prices remained relatively stable), in order to see if there was a significant impact of economic conditions on naming, or if naming was more of a cyclical trend and not connected to the state of the economy.

The study found American parents were “less likely to give their children common names during the years of the Great Recession compared to the years immediately before it, including boys’ and girls’ names at all levels of popularity.” The decline of common names was similar in both California and Texas, which were affected differently by the recession. These results are supported best by the Individualism model, as economic conditions were not the primary reason for the trends in baby names.

This study suggests that naming trends are an indicator of the cultural environment in the United States, specifically the focus on individualism. Some of the trend could be attributed to the perceived threat level in terms of the economy, which could lead to parents wanting their children to stand out. One limitation of the study is the Social Security Administration database, where different spellings of names are registered as different names entirely. Even then, the need to spell a name differently is also an indicator of a desire for uniqueness.