reasoning about symbolic choices

Parents usually consider carefully and at length what name to give to their new new-born children.  Recent research shows that given names that increase faster in popularity also decrease faster in popularity.  According to survey evidence, parents reason that names that are rapidly increasing in popularity are less likely to have enduring appeal.  Hence parents are less likely to choose those names.[*]

This sort of reasoning is relatively sophisticated.  Persons concerned about product quality might reason about aggregate sales of the product.  Reasoning about the slope of aggregate demand for a product is less common.  Concern about inter-personal choice effects (fads) and a long-term horizon for valuing a good favor aggregate, dynamic reasoning in individual choices such as that for children’s names.

The sophistication of reasoning in personal naming sheds some light on the large change in the shape of the given name popularity distribution that begin early in the nineteenth century.  Major twentieth-century changes in media have registered little effect in magazine advertising, which is a type of aggregate symbolic distribution.  Changes in the information economy early in the nineteenth-century are less obvious.  However, sophisticated reasoning about symbolic choices can produce large changes that have relatively obscure relations to aggregate circumstances.

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[*]  See Jonah Berger and Gaël Le Mens. 2009. “How adoption speed affects the abandonment of cultural tastes.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, doi:10.1073/pnas.0812647106

3 thoughts on “reasoning about symbolic choices”

  1. I don’t know if this reflects sophisticated reasoning about enduring appeal or just a “late to the crowd” mentality combined with a pretty specific window for shopping.

    Let’s take Name A as the name that is increasing in popularity very quickly, and Name B as one that is growing in popularity, but more slowly. Let’s also say that over the long haul, they’ll both end up equally popular; the same number of kids over a 10 year span will have both names.

    One is never more aware of what people are naming their children as when one is expecting. So… during the (let’s say) 6-8 months when you’re actively cultivating name choices, you hear Name A and Name B at some point and think, “Those are neat names.” They’ve entered the consideration pool. Now… if you hear, during the next few months, that 10 people are considering Name A, and only 2 or 3 are considering Name B… well, you don’t want your kid to have the same name as a quarter of his kindergarten class. So you toss Name A.

  2. That makes sense to me. But for A to be increasing in popularity very quickly, a lot of parents must actually be naming their children A. So the story has to be a bit more complicated. Particularly kinds of heterogeneity in naming preferences across parents or backward-looking parental estimates of popularity changes could make it work.

  3. There was a study showing that preference in names of the poor people follow with one generation the preferences of rich and famous people. Meaning that the parents will likely choose a name for their child after one of the names of their more wealthy and known contemporans. But I don’t know how rich people name their children.

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