Baby Names Prone to Boom-and-Bust Cycles

TUESDAY Oct. 13, 2009 -- New parents like baby names that are not merely popular but on the rise, compared to names that are falling out of favor, a new study suggests.

The findings by researchers at New York University and Indiana University provide evidence that parental naming choices are influenced by trends in ways that weren't previously understood, the study authors said.

"Our results give support to the idea that individual naming choices are in a large part determined by the social environment that expecting parents experience," the authors wrote. "Like the stock market, cycles of boom and bust appear to arise out of the interactions of a large set of agents who are continually influencing one another."

This trend seems to be a new phenomenon compared to the late 19th and early 20th centuries, said the study authors, whose findings were published online Oct. 12 in the journal Topics in Cognitive Science.

"Parents in the United States are increasingly sensitive to the change in frequency of a name in recent time, such that names that are gaining in popularity are seen as more desirable than those that have fallen in popularity in the recent past," the authors wrote. "This bias then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: names that are falling continue to fall while names on the rise reach new heights of popularity, in turn influencing a new generation of parents."

The researchers based their findings on names given to babies in the United States over the past 127 years.

They found that popular names seemed to gain "momentum" over the past three decades. A name that becomes more popular one year becomes even more popular the next year, and the reverse is also true.

By contrast, from 1880 to 1905 the popularity of names fluctuated from year to year: essentially, they wobbled instead of swelled or swooned in popularity over time.

Why does this matter? The researchers contend that studying baby names offers an opportunity to gain greater understanding of how individuals and groups make decisions.

More information

The Social Security Administration lets you track baby names over time.

Posted: October 2009


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