This is how our names can determine our careers

When your last name is Carpenter and you grow up to work as a carpenter, you may think of it as a funny coincidence, but research finds that your name could have been nudging your subconscious all along.

When your last name is Carpenter and you grow up to work as a carpenter, you may think of it as a funny coincidence, but research finds that your name could have been nudging your subconscious all along.

Called nominative determinism, it’s a theory that got popularized in the 1990s and states that we are drawn to jobs that are similar to our names because our egos help us like things that remind us of ourselves. Under this phenomenon, Jim and Jane Baker are pushed to become bakers, and Harry and Harriet Doktor are inspired to become doctors, while men named Cal decide to live in California.

How nominative determinism works

There are critics to this theory, finding that the correlation does not necessarily lead to causation with implicit ego studies, but in 2013, Brett Pelham, a psychologist who has studied implicit egotism for decades, found more conclusive proof he recently discussed with BBC. Using 1940 and 1880 U.S. census records, he targeted 11 occupational surnames — Baker, Barber, Butcher, Butler, Carpenter, Farmer, Foreman, Mason, Miner, Painter and Porter.

His study ultimately found that men were 15.5% more likely to work in occupations that had their last name than they should have been based on random chance. In every occupation, men with surnames matching their chosen profession were more overrepresented. Women and racial minorities were less likely than white men to follow nominative determinism. It is possible to escape your name fate, but these studies show us how a name can be an unseen nudge, among many, that helped you choose a path.

As Dr. David Limb, a person with a nominatively determined name put it, “I think [that in] a lot of things that we do and decisions that we make, there’s a strong unconscious element that doesn’t even register in our thinking but influences the decision that we make.”

Examples of this in the wild

Still in need of proof before you decide your next name for maximum career success?

Here’s a list of men and women whose names have matched up with their chosen professions:

  • Rich Ricci, the former CEO of Barclays Capital who is certainly rich
  • Mary Berry, food writer and television presenter
  • Michael Scholar, the former President of St John’s College
  • Ann Webb, a tarantula keeper who was the founder of the world’s first tarantula society
  • Usain Bolt, current world record holder in the 100 meter, 200 meters and 4×100 meter relay
  • Marietta Clinkscales, Duke Ellington’s piano teacher
  • Francine Prose, novelist
  • Chris Moneymaker, poker champion
  • Benjamin Millepied, dancer
  • John Minor Wisdom, judge

Monica Torres|is a reporter for Ladders and can be reached at mtorres@theladders.com.