Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Weird Strategy

Suppose you were one of those unfortunate souls with an absolutely bizarre first name, like my old friend Hrothflarr or Buttertenkin or B'drak'nar or what-have-ye. Let's also suppose you're in the job market trying to get work as an office assistant or dental hygienist. Let's further suppose that the people reviewing your resume and cover letter are otherwise inundated with pleas for their attention and they have limited resources for reviewing the material you send them. Let's make one more heroic assumption and say that there is a less than trivial chance that they will see your stupid, hard-to-pronounce, offensive, or trashy name and just pitch your otherwise quite informative personal information straight into the bin.

Now, you don't have to be a game theorist to understand that you have no control over the actions of other people. Sure, if you were inclined, you might lobby for regulations forcing HR personnel to stop discriminating on the basis of having a stupid name, but I think that even the notoriously economically ignorant Congress would smell something amiss with that kind of proposal (though, don't count them out just yet; they've surprised me in the past). Enforcement of this sort of regulation would be pretty close to unenforceable, not to mention preposterously costly and rather pointless. Point is, HR folks are people like the rest of us, and people do as people do, and names are a signal. Yes, they are an impressively noisy signal, and it would be cool to have Battleaxe V. Scarwound III working in Accounts Receivable, hiring that person might be a bit risky, all other things equal (the V stands for Victoria).

So what should you do with your idiotic name? For most of us, the answer seems obvious: get it legally changed. You can do this without telling your friends or relatives, thereby preserving the sense of kinship you have with all your other buddies named Grothnar the Vicious and Punky Brewstarr. It's like the mullet of appellations: business on the tax forms, party on the wedding invitations. It's a very low-cost strategy and it should have a wide range of returns (the quilt of conformity casts a wide shadow). I find it surprising that it's not a more common transaction. Looking for work is tough enough already; why burden yourself with the handicap of a buffoon's name?

Maybe the returns to identity are powerful enough to overcome incentives. I'm sure that any one of you could come up with a thumbnail mathematical model to illustrate the flow of value associated with changing or retaining your name under various conditions (minimum wage, labor regulations, transfer payments, etc). It might be the case that the parameters in this model are such that people are sufficiently compensated for holding their dumbass names.

There's a lot to think about here; the history of immigrants changing surnames upon arrival to the States strikes me as one particularly interesting historical example. There's also the matter of the near/far split between the distant reception of the name signal and the close retention of cultural or personal identity. I might have a whole line of thinking to do on this.

1 comment:

  1. I remember reading something a while back about naming trends, and how names that are popular among the rich become, ten years later or so, popular among the poor. There's some signaling for you.