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“A Boy Named Sue” Revisited

by Donald Prothero, Jun 08 2011

It was just one of those silly “fluff” stories they put on CNN to fill up the hours between commercials and bits of real news. The anchors were reporting on a study that surveyed the most common CEO names. With straight faces, they reported that the most common men’s CEO names were short single-syllable, mostly  four-letter names like Jack, Fred, Bill, Peter, Bob, and Bruce. The most common women’s CEO names were Deborah, Debra, Sally, Cynthia, and Carolyn. Their tiny bit of “analysis” of this undigested factoid by an “onomastics specialist” (a scholar who specializes in  names) was that “shortened versions of given names are often used to denote a sense of friendliness and openness. Female CEOs, on the other hand, use their full name to project a more professional image.” And, like most other stories on Headline News, CNN, USA Today, and other media which consist of no more than a few sentences of information and some superficial comment or analysis, that was it. No further discussion about why those names tend to be most common among CEOs.

It was such a jaw-droppingly stupid piece of tabloid journalism that I was intrigued to look it up and see what was really behind the story. But the story on the Linked-In site is not much longer or detailed than the reporting on CNN. Many other media on the web picked up the same story and gave it the same superficial level of discussion. All the site did was a simple analysis of correlations between occupations and first names, based on their data set of Linked-In members of professionals who join the site for networking purposes (which skews the result right there—it’s not based on a random sample of names from census data or any large, rigorously collected data set). But is it true, as they imply, that the name that parents give their child somehow determines what kind of profession they might enter? Does a decision  most parents make before we are born lock us into certain types of jobs? Are we fated, like the boy named Sue in the Johnny Cash song, to follow a certain path because a parental choices?

No, of course, not! Sadly, not one of the media reporting the story bothered to dig any deeper, or ask any tougher questions about what this apparent correlation might mean. They made the tacit but false assumption that “correlation equal causation” without any real attempt to examine what might have caused the correlation in the first place. The first questions they should have asked is: how different is that frequency of first names compared to the frequency of popular boys’ or girls’ names for the cohort of people born at the same time as most CEOs today? It’s easy to go to the U.S. Census website, type in a year, and find out what the top 10, top 20, or top 100 most popular boys’ and girls’ names were for any given year. Let’s assume that your average CEO today is 55 (you can pick any age for CEOs, who might be expected to be in the late 40s to early 60s now). In 1956, the top 20 boys’ names were all the traditional short ones popular with the parents of the Baby Boomers: Michael, James, Robert, David, John, William, Richard, Mark, Charles, Steven, Charles, Joseph, and Gary make up the top 13 most popular names, and Peter, Fred, and Bruce are all in the top 40. The same goes for girls’ names, with traditional Biblical and Anglo-Saxon names dominating the list, as they do for boys: Mary, Debra, Linda, Deborah, Susan, Patricia, Karen, Cynthia, Donna, Barbara, Pamela, Nancy, and Sharon making up the top 13. Note that both Debra and Deborah were in the top 5 that year, and that Sally, Cynthia, and Carolyn all made the top 40. What would have been much more useful than just a list of the top 5 names would be the raw statistics to see how these names ranked in popularity, or whether if you looked at the top 20 names, you ‘d get a list nearly identical to the ones that the U.S. Census would have for that cohort. No such data are provided. If they had been, one could do a simple statistical analysis to determine whether the frequency of names on their survey is significantly different from a random sample of the most popular names at the time CEOs were born. Now that would have been a meaningful comparison, and if the null hypothesis were falsified (the list of CEO names is statistically distinct from a random sample of the most popular names at that time), then you would have something worth explaining and analyzing. As it stands in the Linked-In website, it’s a factoid without any real meaning, and no conclusions can be drawn from it whatsoever—except that the Linked-In people have no training in statistics or social science studies like this.

The site has some other quirks that reveal a lot about the sampling methodology. cultural biases, and very little about the meaning of name rankings. For example, the top names in the restaurant business were Thierry, Phillippe, and Laurent. Hmmmm… Do parents give their boys French-sounding names to turn them into chefs (as the website seems to imply)? OR is it due to the fact that the high-end restaurant business is dominated by French cuisine, so most chefs are French in cultural heritage? The most popular name in engineering is Rajesh. Do parents not from India pick that name to turn their son into an engineer, or could it be that there are a lot of people of south Asian origins in engineering? In athletics, the five most popular names are Ryan, Matt, Matthew, Jessica, and Jason. Given that athletes would tend to be in their 20s or 30s, wouldn’t you guess that these are among the most popular names among kids born in the 1970s and 1980s? Sure enough, that’s what the U.S. Census site shows.

And then there are real head-scratchers that raise a red flag and make me doubt that this data set has any validity at all. The site reports that the top names in sales are Chip, Todd, and Trey! What? I don’t think I’ve ever met a “Chip” in my life, and the only time I’ve heard of a “Trey” was the character played by Kyle MacLachlan on the Sex and the City HBO series, or South Park animator Trey Parker (whose real name is Randolph Severn Parker III, hence the nickname “Trey” or “third”). Those are really the most popular names in sales today? Sounds more like a suspicious data set to me.

17 Responses to ““A Boy Named Sue” Revisited”

  1. gski says:

    Perhaps the names in sales were chosen by the sales people themselves. It might help them influence customers. Similar to movie actors taking a stage name.

    • Donald Prothero says:

      I considered this, but still nicknames like “Chip” and “Trey” are staggeringly rare–yet the website implies not that they are more typical of sales than any other field, but that they are COMMON names. That I don’t buy!

      • Actually, Donald, if your parents give you an “African-sounding” name, it DOES lock you into certain jobs. Or rather, pretty much locks you OUT of “corner suite” jobs. And there have been legitimate demographic studies on this.

      • Donald Prothero says:

        I have heard that, and I’m not surprised, since there is a lot of racism at the top–but NOT the kind of unsupported assertions and inadequate statistical analysis that THIS study is claiming

      • Hey, a name like Trey or Chip is a very preppy name.

        I agree that I’d still like to see research, but on the men’s names? I’ll bet there’s an above-average portion who went to private high schools/prep schools, etc.

        But, again, you’re right on the total lack of research. It *sounds* reasonable, but is it?

      • Max says:

        It just gets you into the White House :-)

      • That’s why he went by “Barry” earlier!

  2. Badrescher says:

    Excellent and interesting post! I am often annoyed by the media engine that promotes overgeneralization from single findings or a homogeneous set of findings and the lack of context is a major reason why. We tend to draw conclusions from limited information as a matter of human nature and often take action with little thought to the possible alternative explanations. This is a wonderful example of good skeptical analysis.

    gski, there are many possible explanations, but the most parsimonious is Dr. Prothero.

  3. I enjoyed this analysis of a ridiculous news story, and the need to dig deeper because of the “tacit but false assumption that “correlation equal causation””. Unfortunately, we in the skeptic community occasionally make this mistake as well.

    In the April/May 2011 issue of Free Inquiry magazine. Jennifer Michael Hecht insisted that “suicide is also homicide” because of the risk factor associated with the phenomena of “suicidal clusters” and “suicidal contagion”. The full article can be found here:

    When my husband and I pointed out this logical fallacy, Ms. Hecht’s response was as follows:

    “They say that a correlation does not imply causation and then announce that what I have called a causation is a logical fallacy, but their assertion is based on poor reasoning.”

    Thank you for emphasizing the need to be sure that we are not making the leap from correlation to causation. We need to be reminded periodically so we don’t fall into this trap.

    • Hecht is kind of overrated, IMO. Some parts of “Doubt” were good (namely, the parts on skepticism in India, IMO) but it was uneven otherwise … and sadly lacked a copy editor, too.

    • Oh, one more comment on “suicide” = “homicide”? That’s an old conservative Catholic idea, too on religious grounds. Another reason for Hecht to shut her yap on that issue.

  4. L. Taylor says:

    Very interesting! Thanks Donald. It’s amazing how just a little digging into the facts can reveal a possible cause for the correlation that’s nothing weird or unexpected.

    Doesn’t it seem like some of the media outlets would realize that the story is more interesting if you actually show why it’s true? If all the major outlets were blathering about the correlation, and one of them pointed out what you did in this article, they would stand above the rest by contributing something new to the report, rather than copy-catting off the others.

    • Donald Prothero says:

      I don’t have much hope for modern media. We all know how often their research is superficial, sloppy or just non-existent, and that they are driven by the bottom line for sensationalist “events” that can be reduced to audience-grabbing sound bites. Most TV news broadcasters care only about pretty faces to read news pulled directly off the wire or the internet and don’t have staff (or interest) to fact-check or dig deeper. NO ONE is paid to think deeply, nor does their audience seem to care if there is any real research behind a story. At one time, newspapers had t have a lot of reporters digging deep and finding scoops and double and triple-checking their research, but that day is vanishing as print media disappear and with them the trained journalists who used to care about such things…

  5. Bob says:

    The story makes perfect sense to me!

    • Max says:

      Are you a CEO, Bob?

      The LinkedIn study sounds reasonable when it says, “At first glance, the top CEO names are a reflection of the CEO demographics. Looking more closely, however, we observe a different trend: over-indexed CEO names tend to be either short or shortened versions of popular first names… Monosyllabic CEO names are also not necessarily popular in all countries”

      It’s true that names reflect demographics, but the study suggests that shortening the names is a choice, so Robert chooses to shorten his name to Bob, but Deborah chooses not to shorten her name to Deb.

      People certainly feel that their names matter. Piyush Jindal goes by his nickname Bobby, Barack Obama was Barry in his youth, Carlos Estevez became Charlie Sheen, Pakistani-American terrorist Daood Sayed Gilani changed his name to David Headley to make travel to India easier, etc.

      • Donald Prothero says:

        The part of the CEOs adopting shorter or longer versions of their nicknames MAY be true (they don’t provide statistic to back it up), but if you look at the rest of the Linked-in post, they talk about names which are NOT nicknames and NOT chosen by the child as if THEY have some influence on whether they become a French chef or an athletic or an engineer, completely ignoring cultural and demographic effects

  6. Mario says:

    This is covered in Freakonomics right?, both the book and the movie, what I found funny was the more than 2 hundred ways to write “Unique” as a name, and that some parents pay to “name experts” that choose the most likely name for your kid to succeed in life (but when you think that there are folks that pay for pet therapists, this does not sound that much crazy).

    Guess that Dr. Degrase is right, we should not be afraid of our kids future since they are not the ones reading horoscopes or voting rights.