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Name Spelling and Perceived Conotations

The effects of conventional and unconventional name spelling on perceived employment suitability are to be studied. Based on theories of learning and stereotype formation and activation, it is expected that unconventionally spelled names will be rated more negatively than conventionally spelled names. 120 participants (60 male and female) will be given a job application, with either a conventionally spelled or unconventionally spelled name, and asked to rate its suitability based on specific criteria. Participants will respond using a five-item, 6-point Likert scale measuring five dimensions: education, qualifications, previous experience, references, and personal details. Validity and reliability measures are also discussed. It is expected that group means will show conventionally spelled names score higher than unconventionally spelled names. Suggesting that unconventionally spelled names can facilitate negative personality appraisal, as congruent with previous research. Conclusions about methodological assumptions and implications are discussed.

The Effect of Name Spelling on Perceived Employment Suitability. Wading through the vast wealth of possible first names is a time-consuming and arduous journey that every parent must face, and in many cases, some parents prefer to select unusual or unconventional names in the hope of making their child uniquely different. In doing so however, they may inadvertently burden the child with a range of negative connotations often associated with unconventional names. For example, individuals with uncommon names are often rated as less intelligent and less desirable by their peers (Levine & Willis, 1994). To counter this, many parents select names with an unusual spelling, in the hope of retaining unique qualities within the name without exposing their child to the negative effects of unconventional naming. Studies have shown, however, that unconventional spelling may exert the same negative effects as unconventional naming (Mehrabian & Piercy, 1993).


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An unconventional name is one that employs a culturally unusual or uncommon word, title, or phrase (Cook, Lounsbury & Fontenelle, 1980). Similarly, unconventionally spelled names are those that employ cultural unusual spelling of commonly accepted names (Mehrabian & Piercy, 1993). Emily, for example, is the commonly accepted spelling in the current English language, whereas Emilie is a cultural variant. That unconventional spelling should exert a negative influence over perception is a logical expectation. Associative learning theory, for example, holds that as the individual interacts with their environment, they will be reinforced to engage in behaviors and situations the result in positive outcomes and to avoid those that result in negative outcomes (Klein & Mowrer, 1989). As such, the individual will associate familiar aspects of life with positive appraisal, and unfamiliar aspects with negative appraisal (Hall, 1991), resulting in positive expectations about familiar names, and negative expectations about unfamiliar names.

Likewise, stereotype formation and activation also account for negative appraisal of unconventional names. Stereotypes are generalizations about a collection of individuals, whereby values, traits, or expectations are assigned to group members, regardless of actual variation amongst those individuals (Aaronson, Wilson & Akert, 2005). As society is motivated to maintain cultural norms, and since unconventional names are different from the norms, it is likely that individuals will view people with uncommon names as cultural deviants (Porter, Edward & Hackman, 1975), and form negative stereotypes about individuals with unconventionally spelled names (Dinur, Beit-Hallahmi & Hofman, 1996). Given the strong theoretical foundations, it is little wonder research regarding perception and unconventional names is abundant. However, the most accurate and useful studies are those that account for the greatest levels of contextual interference (Mehrabian & Piercy, 1993).

It is logical to expect, since the name is only a part of an individuals perception, that it should only exert a greater than normal significance in situations where contextual elements are minimal (Mehrabian & Piercy, 1993). That is, situations where the name is presented with little or no other information concerning personalities, such as job applications or personal ads. Mehrabian and Piercy (1993) demonstrated contextual control by having participants rate names based only on the name itself. They found that conventionally spelled names scored far more positive ratings on the Name Connotation Profile (Mehrabian 1990) than unconventionally spelled names. Participants, for example, rated individuals with conventionally spelled names as having higher intelligence and greater levels of morality and success, suggesting that unconventionally spelled names correlate with negative connotations and pre-existing expectations within the perceiver (Mehrabian & Piercy, 1993).

Methodological weaknesses tainted their findings, however, and the broad nature of the study raised issues with ecological validity. For example, by having participants rate multiple names sequentially, there is a potential for carry-over effects (Cozby, 2001). It is possible that a participant had a negative predisposition to just one name and subsequently appraised all remaining names afterward as negative because of it. Additionally, because uneven frequencies of conventional and unconventional names (66 conventional and 93 unconventional) were used, any difference between the groups could be attributed to more unconventionally spelled names being rated than conventional names (De Vaus, 2002). More accurate data could be attained by focusing on specific contextual aspects of name connotation. For example, English & Stephens (2004) study of formal names and nicknames in the context of personal ads revealed that participants rated the same person as having higher levels of success, morality, and warmth when paired with a formal name, and lower when paired with a nickname.

Suggesting that nicknames acting as unconventional names facilitate a negative appraisal of socially related personality constructs. Likewise, Bruning, Polinko, Zerbst & Buckingham’s (2000) study of nicknames and formal names in relation to perceived job success indicated that participants rated nicknames as less likely to succeed and formal names as more likely to succeed. Signifying that nicknames acting as unconventional names also facilitate a negative appraisal of work-related personality constructs, such as intelligence, creativity, and organization. These studies provide more detailed support for the effects of unconventional naming, since they work within specific contexts, personal ads, and job applications, making the results less likely to be tainted by contextual variables. In essence, there is support to suggest that unconventionally spelled names induce negative connotations, both in the general social context as well as the work environment.

There is, however, vast research still necessary for a detailed understanding of the connotations that unconventionally spelled names exert. The current study attempts to further this area by investigating the effect of unconventionally spelled names in perceived employment suitability. Employment suitability was selected as an appropriate area of study because it allowed for a highly controllable medium, the job application, and as job applications are contextually minimal environments where an individual’s name will exert increased significance over participant perception (Mehrabian & Piercy, 1993). As such, it is predicted that unconventionally spelled names will appear unfamiliar to participants, and will trigger negative predispositions that will facilitate negative appraisal. Specifically, it is hypothesized that a job application with an unconventionally spelled name will be rated as less suitable for employment than a job application with a conventionally spelled name, even though both job applications will be identical.

Methods. Participants 120 students (60 M/F) of varying ages, gender, and ethnicity currently enrolled in Psychology 1A at the University of Western Sydney will complete the study as part of course requirements and would be selected via convenience sampling on a first come first involved basis. Participation sheets detailing the venue, time, availability, and course percentage values would be posted around the campus. Participants will be randomly assigned to treatment groups and would need to have some work experience. A minimum sample size of 90 must be attained to ensure each group is sufficiently robust (Hills, 2003), whilst 120 participants present optimal sample size to allow violations of normality and/or homogeneity (De Vaus, 2002).

Design. The current study would employ a between-subjects design with the independent variable, job application name, engaged in three treatment groups. The first group would receive no name, the second group would receive a conventionally spelled name and the final group would receive an unconventionally spelled name. Three name sets would be used: John & Jon, Emily & Emilie, and Karen & Karyn. The dependent variable, perceived employment suitability, would be measured using a 6-point Likert scale, ranging from 0 – 5. The scale would be used to assess five dimensions of suitability: education, qualifications, previous experience, references, and personal details, with total scores ranging from 0 – 25.

Materials. The materials required for this study include the job application, the job criterion sheet, and the participant response sheet (See Appendix A). The job application will consist of the relevant information congruent with the job criterion sheet and will be identical between groups except for the application name. The job information on the application will have an almost perfect match for the job requirements, and theoretically, participants in the no-name group should rate the job application very highly (23 – 25). The criterion sheet will be formatted from the perspective of the employer and will consist of job requirements, under two sub-headings: essential criteria and preferred criteria. The essential criteria will include job-relevant factors like qualifications, whilst preferred criteria will include details such as education and previous experience.

The response sheets will consist of a five-item, 6-point Likert scale. Participants will infer perceived employment suitability by rating how well they believe the application description matches the job requirements. Participants respond by circling a number from 0 – 5, where zero indicates the application has not met the criteria, and where five indicates the application fully meets the criteria. Participants will rate education, qualifications, previous experience, references, and personal details, with the total score providing perceived job suitability. To ensure a valid measure, five human resources managers from local companies will be interviewed and asked to identify what they believe are the most important features for a successful job application. On the basis of the interviews, areas of importance can be identified, e.g. education, qualification, previous experiences, references, and personal details.

For each area of importance, three questions would be postulated. Ideally, these items would then be subject to principal components analysis, but given the undergraduate nature of the proposed study, such an endeavor would be impossible (Hills, 2003). Instead, a copy of the application, criterion sheet, and response sheet including all 15 items would be sent to the local human resources managers, which they would be asked to complete. The results could then be analyzed to determine which of the items presented the highest levels of similarity to one another, after which, those items could then be retained and the others removed (De Vaus, 2002). Suggesting that the remaining items on the response sheet are testing the same area of study (Hills, 2003), perceived employment suitability. This would provide support for the validity and internal consistency reliability (Cozy, 2000), which could not be determined, given the small size of the scale, via statistical split-half measures (Hills, 2003).

Procedure. Firstly, participants will be briefed about the requirements of the study and asked to give their consent. After which, the experimenter will issue the participants with one of the three job applications, a criterion sheet, and a response sheet. The researcher will then explain to the participants how to complete the response sheet, ask them to read through the job application, and begin their rating. Participants will be given as much time as required to complete their response sheet, after which, the researcher will explain the full purpose of the study and debrief the participants. Given that a five-item, 6-point Likert scale is relatively easy to complete, and as the research requires only 90 participants in total (about 1/3 of the available population), this study presents a relatively high level of feasibility. Additionally, as the participants will not have knowledge of the research aims, and since the research itself induces almost no anxiety, stress or harm, this study should be gain ethical approval.

Results. Since this study would employ a between-subjects design with three treatment groups, and as the data arising from the study will be quantitative in the form of mean scores, a one-way analysis of variance (ANOVA) using the general linear model will be employed to test for significant differences between group means (Hills, 2003). Post-hoc comparisons using the Tukey HSD test will be used to isolate significant differences. Based on expectation, it is likely that results would show very high mean scores for the control group, a similar or higher mean for the conventionally spelled group, and a significantly lower mean for the unconventionally spelled group. Assuming that ANOVA procedures identified some significant difference, the Tukey HSD test should identify the only real difference occurring between the conventionally and unconventionally spelled groups.

Discussion. If the proposed study produced the expected results then the hypothesis, that job applications with unconventionally spelled names would be perceived as less suitable for employment than job applications with conventionally spelled names, would be supported. This would suggest that participants who rated the job application lower in the unconventional name group did so because they activated pre-existing stereotypes, expectations, or associations about the individual, rather than on the basis of the content of the application, (Klein & Mowrer, 1989 and Dinur, Beit-Hallahmi & Hofman, 1996). This would indicate that unconventionally spelled names facilitate negative appraisal of personality traits where contextual elements are held to a minimum, congruent with previous research (Mehrabian & Piercy, 1993; Bruning, Polinko, Zerbst & Buckingham, 2000 and English & Stephens, 2004).

As with all investigations, this study is not without problems. One issue, in particular, is that the results of this study can only appear in a situation where an individual’s name takes on greater significance than it normally should. As such, the results of this study can only be generalized to those situations. This methodological issue cannot be fixed by changing the design of the research, as changing the methodology would negate the occurrence of the phenomenon. As such, this will always be an underlying issue within any study concerning the connotative effects of unconventionally spelled names. With this in mind, future research should focus on finding more areas where an individual’s name can influence how they are perceived so that a greater awareness of this phenomenon can be achieved, and a deeper understanding of how and why we appraise individuals the way we do can be realized.


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