Sometimes Truth is Comedy

Consider Brett Pelham, Matthew Mirenberg, and John Jones’ 2002 report of wacky associations between people’s names and vocations.  Who would have guessed?  For example, in the United States, Jerry, Dennis, and Walter are equally popular names (0.42 percent of people carry each of these names). Yet America’s dentists have been almost twice as likely to be named Dennis as Jerry or Walter. Moreover, 2.5 times as many female dentists have been named Denise as the equally popular names Beverly and Tammy. And George or Geoffrey have been overrepresented among geoscientists (geologists, geophysicists, and geochemists).

I thought of that playful research recently when reading some clever research on black bears’ quantitative competence, co-authored by Michael Beran.  Next up in my reading pile was creative work on crows’ problem solving led by Chris Bird.  Today I was appreciating interventions for lifting youth out of depression, pioneered by Sally Merry.

That also took my delighted mind to the important books on animal behavior by Robin Fox and Lionel Tiger, and the Birds of North America volume by Chandler Robbins.  (One needn’t live in Giggleswick, England, to find humor in our good science.)

The list goes on: billionaire Marc Rich, drummer Billy Drummond, cricketer Peter Bowler, and the Ronald Reagan Whitehouse spokesman Larry Speakes.  And as a person with hearing loss whose avocational passion is hearing advocacy, I should perhaps acknowledge the irony of my own name, which approximates My-ears. :)

Internet sources offer lots more:  dentists named Dr. E. Z. Filler, Dr. Gargle, and Dr. Toothaker; the Oregon banking firm Cheatham and Steele; and the chorister Justin Tune.  But my Twitter feed this week offered a cautionary word about these reported names:

“The problem with quotes on the Internet is that you never know if they’re true.”  ~ Abraham Lincoln

Perhaps you, too, have some favorite name-vocation associations?  I think of my good friend who was anxiously bemused before meeting his oncologist, Dr. Bury.  (I am happy to report that, a decade later, he is robustly unburied and has not needed the services of the nearby Posthumus Funeral Home.) 

For Pelham and his colleagues there is a serious point to this fun:  We all tend to like what we associate with ourselves (a phenomenon they call “implicit egotism”). We like faces that have features of our own face morphed into them.  We like—and have some tendency to live in—cities and states whose names overlap with our own—as in the disproportionate number of people named Jack living in Jacksonville,of Philips in Philadelphia, and of people whose names begin with Tor in Toronto.

Uri Simonsohn isn’t entirely convinced (see here and here, with Pelham’s reply here).  He replicated the associations between people’s names, occupations, and places, but argued that “reverse causality” sometimes is at work. For example, people sometimes live in places and on streets after which their ancestors were named.

Implicit egotism research continues.  In the meantime, we can delight in the occasional playful creativity of psychological science.

P.S.  Speaking of dentists (actual ones), my retired Hope College chemistry colleague Don Williams—a person of sparkling wit—offers these photos, taken by his own hand:

And if you need a podiatrist to advise about your foot odor, Williams has found just the person: