A University of Chicago psychologist analyzed baby names cataloged for the past 50 years and found a modern right-side bias
A psychology professor from the University of Chicago is doubling down on research that caused a great kerfuffle among linguists in 2012. In Daniel Casasanto’s previous paper, he presented the QWERTY effect, named after the standard American keyboard: that words typed using more letters on the right side of the keyboard (like y, u, i, o, p, m, n, j, k, l) tend to be be viewed as more positive, while words typed with more letters from the left side (like z, x, c, v, b, a, s, d and f) tend to be viewed as more negative.
Now, in a paper to be presented this summer at the 36th Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society, Casasanto will present findings that show Americans have started to favor baby names typed with more right-side keys since 1990, the point his team chose as the beginning of the keyboard-centric era. This builds on the same basic theory that people favor things on their dominant side, and because the vast majority of people are right-handed, that means most humans should associate positive feelings with the right side of the keyboard, too.
It just so happens that the top two baby names for 2013, announced on May 9 by the Social Security Administration, were Sophia and Noah, both of which use more letters from the right side than the left. But Casasanto, who used SSA data from 1960 to 2012 to do his analysis, warns that this isn’t a theory that operates on an individual, name-by-name level.
“It may be that Asa, which is spelled with all left-hand letters, is nevertheless a popular name throughout history,” he says. “It doesn’t mean that suddenly everyone is naming all of their babies with letters from the right side instead of the left. This means this is a very clear influence that is contributing to the choices we make. This is an effect that works unconsciously and can only be detected statistically.”
Along with his colleagues Kyle Jasmin, Geoffrey Brookshire and Tom Gijssels, Casasanto computed the “right side advantage” year-over-year for every name given to at least 100 babies for over a half-century. What they found was that the number of right side letters–with the imaginary dividing line running where the home keys are divided–started to significantly outnumber the left-sided letters over time. They also found that in names invented after 1990, right-side letters were more common than in names that existed before that time.
The basic theory behind this research started bubbling out of Casasanto’s psychology lab years ago. “We discovered that people implicitly associate good stuff, positive things with their dominant side of space and bad things with their non-dominant side,” he says. In his foundational right-left study, Casasanto showed people pairs of alien creatures, one on the right and one on the left. He then asked which was smarter or nicer or more honest, switching which sides the aliens appeared on for different respondents. On average, he found that the righties were choosing the alien on the right and the lefties were choosing the alien on the left.
Casasanto’s lab repeated these results in other studies, finding the same implicit bias to like things on one’s dominant side, whether it was an arbitrary political candidate or job applicant. He also found that if, say, a right-handed fellow was forced to perform tasks with his left hand, experiencing what it felt like to favor those motor skills, immediately after the tasks he would show a bias for things on his left. “Because we interact with things on our dominant side more fluently, with a greater sense of ease, we come to associate that side with positive things,” he says, “and the other side, where we interact more clumsily, with negative.”
Since debuting the QWERTY effect, Casasanto has discovered that it holds true for multiple languages, some of which have keyboards shaped differently than the typical America computer; for made-up words and for the individual letters on the right and left sides of the keyboard. But he knows the assertion that spending all day at a desk could have an influence on what people choose to call their children is not going to go down easy with everyone. “This intuition that we have a stable mental dictionary, a mental encyclopedia, is so deeply ingrained in psychology and linguistics, threats to that are threatening to our mind-view,” he says. “What we’re showing here is a new sense of non-arbitrariness in language, a new way in which the form of a word and the way we articulate it—not with our mouth but with our fingers—is connected to the meaning of those words.”
He also knows people will point out individual names that seem to upend the theory, loving them or hating them despite their right-ness or left-ness. But that, he says, misses the point. Consider, he says, the statistic that Dutch people are the tallest in the world, on average. That doesn’t mean that every Dutch person will be tall or that a Dutch baby can be predicted to be tall. “If you know a lot of Dutch people and you can think of five of them who are short, that doesn’t make the statistic not true,” he says.
And so Ava, an all-left name that has been in the SSA’s top ten for the past decade, may remain a favored name for decades to come. But perhaps, if Casasanto’s theory holds true, some new parents might eventually opt for something like Mia instead.