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Your name might bring out the bias in others

Music mogul Kanye West, who named his daughter with celebrity wife Kim Kardashian "North," picked a similarly unique name for their new son: "Saint." And while we know of at least one other Saint out there (rocker Pete Wentz also named his son Saint two years ago), it's unlikely that Saint West will have to be known by his last name in school to keep from being confused with the other Saints in the room.

Names are important, and all parents know that picking one is not an easy task. They shape our sense of identity and often connect us to our heritage. More than a few countries take names so seriously that they have lists of prohibited names (good luck naming your baby "4real" in New Zealand). Still, as overly restrictive as these laws sound, science suggests that some names may have negative consequences for their bearers.

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When we see a name — be it Sara Smith or Daoming Zhang — we tend to picture what we think the individual looks like, with potential race being among the first identifiers to spring to mind. On the face of it, there is nothing wrong with this. But there can be a costly downside for some with racially specific names, when the bias of others, either conscious or subconscious, is taken into account.

Researchers in Boston and Chicago sent out identical resumes with either white sounding names on them (like Emily) or black sounding names on them (like Lakisha) and measured the number of interviews that were scheduled for each type of name afterward. Disturbingly, the white named applicants received 50 percent more interviews than the applicants with the black names. A BBC news team repeated the experiment in England and found similar results with an added twist: They included typical Muslim names (like Mohammad) and found that those names had the lowest success rate of any applicants at less than 10 percent.

Whether employers are consciously weeding out people of color is unclear, but they are doing so nonetheless, making judgments about applicants' suitability for positions based on their names.

You might think that well-educated university scientists avoid drawing such ill-informed conclusions, but you would be wrong. Just this year, a review of grant funding out of the National Institute of Health suggested a 30-year pattern of favoritism of white scientists. This year white researchers received funding about 25 percent of the time and black researchers received funding about 20 percent of the time. These patterns persisted regardless of the quality of the project proposed. As you might expect, this created an enormous panic as grant reviewers, who said they believed that they were above taking race into consideration when allocating millions of dollars of federal funds, were suddenly confronted with evidence that they might well be unknowingly biased against black applicants.

The fix that NIH has decided to try is to do "blind reviews," a method I wholeheartedly endorse for any hiring body. Such reviews remove any information related to the race, ethnicity, religion or gender of the applicant before anyone with the power to allocate grant money takes a look at it. After all, if you don't know what group a person belongs to, you have to judge them solely on their performance, skills and abilities. The end result of blind reviews should be picking the best person for the job and not the person that fits our stereotypes — be they conscious or subconscious.

All of which brings us back to young Saint West. His first name has little history and doesn't bring a clear image to mind. In his case, it may be his last name — like Hilton and Rockefeller before him — that speaks volumes.

D. Ryan Schurtz is an assistant professor in the psychology department of Stevenson University. His email is dschurtz@stevenson.edu.

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