What Students Need to Know About Names: When the Need to Belong Backfires

Aimed at integrating cutting-edge psychological science into the classroom, columns about teaching Current Directions in Psychological Science offer advice and how-to guidance about teaching a particular area of research or topic in psychological science that has been the focus of an article in the APS journal Current Directions in Psychological Science.

More teaching resources from the Observer: How an Active Imagination Can Justify Moral Inconsistencies

Biernat, M., Zhao, X., & Watkins, E. C. (2024). Names matter: Implications of name “whitening” for ethnic minority discrimination and well-being. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 0(0). 

When you meet a stranger, what do you first tell them? Before your profession or holiday plans, you tell strangers your name. We value our names, often more than we realize. We prefer the letters in our names more than the letters that aren’t in our names; we experience a “cocktail party” effect when we hear our name amidst a cacophony of nearby noises; and some researchers have even suggested that we make life-changing decisions on the basis of similarity with our name, such as the above-average tendency for men named Dennis deciding to become dentists and marry women named Denise (Cherry, 1953; Nuttin, 1985; Pelham et al., 2005). 

Sometimes, people change their names to blend in with their new group. Monica Biernat, Xian Zhao, and Emily Watkins outline how ethnic minority-group members “whiten” their names to reduce the likelihood of discrimination and increase a sense of belonging. For example, emails sent to U.S. professors received more replies when sent by a Chinese student named Xian who wrote, “You can call me by my English name Alex” than when the same Chinese student did not change their name. International students applying for a teaching position received higher ratings when they introduced themselves as “John” rather than “Jian” (Zhao & Biernat, 2017). Whitening one’s first name increases job interest among both Asian (Luke Zhang vs. Lei Zhang) and African American (Lamar J. Smith vs. L. James Smith) job candidates (Kang et al., 2016). Hence, name-changing is effective at reducing discrimination and increasing belonging

However, the desire to belong can sometimes have unintended consequences. Although name-whitening has been successful in reducing discrimination, Biernat and her team found that it is also associated with lower self-esteem and a diminished sense of well-being. They propose that if majority-group members were encouraged to learn and pronounce minority-group members’ names, it could potentially reduce the need for name changes. This, in turn, could help minority-group members feel protected from discrimination without experiencing a negative impact on their self-esteem and well-being.     

You can bring this cutting-edge psychological science research to life by incorporating the following activities into your classroom. These activities aim to help students understand the implications of name whitening (name-changing) for ethnic minority discrimination and well-being. They will also prompt discussions about the decision to change one’s name. Each activity is brief, taking no more than 5 minutes, and can be done in person or virtually. 

Student Activities

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