The name you’re given as a child might affect the shape of your face

Beware of the Dorian Gray effect.
Beware of the Dorian Gray effect.
Image: Reuters/Benoit Tessler
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Shakespeare was probably wrong to suggest there’s little to labels. There’s evidence that a Rose by any other name would not smell as sweet after all.

Social scientists believe that names produce a Dorian Gray effect, influencing personality, how we’re perceived, and even physical appearance. In Oscar Wilde’s novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, the protagonist never ages while his portrait takes on the effects of a life of excess, becoming a ravaged canvas. In psychology, the “Dorian Gray effect” (pdf) named after the character refers to the ways internal factors, such as personality or self-perception, influence physicality.

Our physical traits in turn impact how other people perceive us, which again affects how we feel and see ourselves, and so on and so forth. Psychologists believe there’s a relationship between internals and externals, a back and forth that shapes us.

Recently, researchers from Hebrew University in Jerusalem decided to test whether  stereotypes and labels also have a Dorian Gray effect on physical appearance. Specifically, they wanted to find out if the name a person is given at birth—the earliest label a person gets that is unrelated to physical appearance—impacts later physicality. (Previous studies have shown that a baby’s looks have little influence on the chosen name). “Our given name is our very first social tagging,” they wrote in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in February. “Each name has associated characteristics, behaviors, and a look, and as such, it has a meaning and a shared schema within a society.”

The study hypothesized that this early label marks all those who bear the same name similarly, so much so that other people can match name to face based on expectations of how someone with a certain moniker is likely to look. In other words, name stereotypes manifest physically in facial appearance.

This assumes shared social coding, of course—the researchers are not proposing that this could be done by anyone anywhere with no cultural familiarity. Yet they did show that, to a statistically significant degree, people and even machines could match faces to culturally common names of strangers in pictures when they understood local social cues.

Across eight different studies in two countries, the research team found that both people and computers could pick the right name for a given face with more accuracy than would result from chance. That means common notions of how a person with a certain face would look were correct—there was a “right” name for a type of face. “Each name is associated with a character, behaviors, and a facial appearance,” the researchers explain.  

In a first study, a panel was presented with photographs of Israeli young adults, each accompanied by four false names—all local and common—and one real name. The participants were able to pick the true name 28% of the time—that’s a significant proportion more than the 20% hit rate of random guessing. Dan looked like a Dan should apparently.    

The researchers replicated the results in France using French people and names. In subsequent studies, they tested whether some names were simply more “pickable,” and found that wasn’t the case. Controls for age and ethnicity ensured those weren’t factors in helping people guess correctly.

Computers could also match faces and names quite accurately, suggesting face-typing is a thing. Using machine learning, the researchers trained a computer with a bank of almost 100,000 images downloaded from a French social networking site. Once the algorithm was familiarized with the data, it could accurately judge between two possible names for any given face more than half the time.

Computers were also used to analyze which parts of the face were most useful for name-matching. They found that the eyes and surrounding area, which are used to form voluntary expressions, were much more useful than the margins.

Face-name typing likely works on many levels, the study suggests. Because we have shared ideas of what names connote, people with those names may “grow into” them by adapting expected behavior, facial expressions, and looks, and perceivers will also have certain expectations based on social coding. The messages go back and forth manifesting in a look, a face-type for people of the same name.

Say your name is Rose. Social coding may direct you to act feminine, smile demurely, wear dresses, grow your hair long. This is perhaps unconsciously expected more of a woman named for a flower than an Alexandra who goes by Alex, a name that in the US is common for males and females. Alex may feel more free to bend gender stereotypes because of her name and how people see her and vice versa and she’ll likely be less floral somehow than Rose.

The researchers concluded that monikers are a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy: Once a baby is named, the child may well develop into an adult who looks and acts the part.