Dennis the Dentist: on the unkillable wrongness of nominative determinism

In 2002, a peer-reviewed article in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology claimed that men named "Dennis" were more likely to become dentists; people named "George" or "Georgina" were apt to become geologists; and people with surnames like "Diamond" and "Ricci" were more likely to become bankers.

This is such a cool and weird idea that it got widely repeated, even after a 2011 review of the phenomenon of "nominative determinism" comprehensively showed it to be false, a "statistical artifact" of the fact that names associated with wealthy people were more likely to be found in professions dominated by the children of the wealthy.

The unkillable nature of "nominative determinism" is a case-study for the too-good-to-factcheck stories that have dominated the demagogue-fuelled elections and referendums of the decade, from the £350M that the NHS would get after Brexit to the "thousands of Muslims who celebrated the 9/11 attacks in New Jersey.

It's not enough to tell a Big Lie, the lie has to be juicy in a very specific way, needs to have the characteristics that allow it to self-perpetuate.

So why do people still tell me that Dennis is likely to become a dentist? I think the truth is that nominative determinism hits a mental sweet spot. We chuckle when we hear that a senior judge is called Igor Judge. We're astonished and delighted to hear that the boffins have gone out and discovered that people really do seek out professions and spouses that echo their own names. It's a finding that is simple to remember, faintly intuitive and yet surprising enough to talk about to other people. It spreads.

Old ideas die hard — especially when they are interesting and fun. I am told that we live in a post-factual age, and perhaps there are more important things to worry about than whether Dennis is likely to become a dentist. Still, even when the myth is delightful and the truth is dull, the truth still matters.

Rich the banker? What's not in a name…
[Tim Harford]