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Monday, March 12, 2012

Names Matter: Results from a Pseudo-Scientific Experiment Conducted in Vermont


Even prior to my move to Burlington, Vermont, where I spent eight months of my life last year, I developed a keen awareness of my minority status in that relatively homogeneous state. Upon finding out that I am of Iranian descent, my landlord assured me over the phone that she didn’t care about my ancestry as long as I don’t build a mosque in her neighborhood (you know, because Muslims are hell-bent on constructing mosques wherever they go). I’m not Muslim, but that’s beside the point.

Evidently, my funny name was also – or so my colleagues alleged - responsible for my difficulty in leasing an apartment in a well-to-do neighborhood along Lake Champlain. While I outwardly doubted such allegations – not wishing to be perceived as one who habitually plays the race-card – I found myself secretly wondering whether there was any truth in them.

These sorts of experiences ultimately inspired me to conduct a pseudo-scientific experiment. I drew up a list of houses/apartments for rent in Vermont and randomly divided the list into two groups, together comprising 100 landlords. I sent a standard email to landlords from each group, using a different first name (either "John" or "Amir"). My objective was to determine whether there would be a significantly higher number of responses from the "John" group than from the "Amir" group.

34% (16 total replies) of the John group responded to my message, whereas only 2% (1 reply) of the Amir group answered back. The difference between these two names was statistically significant. I was at once excited about and disheartened by these results.

The lesson to be drawn here is that one’s name can make a huge difference to how a community receives him. This certainly isn’t the first time that someone has argued that names matter (e.g., click here). The more I come across such findings the more I come to see names as unessential, superficial expressions of one’s culture. Surely there are other ways of passing on one’s cultural heritage than to give his child a name that may prove to be a liability in the latter’s life.
Now, off to my next mosque-building project…