People think an easier name means a food additive is safer, an amusement park ride less risky, and a stock more lucrative, according to old research. Now a new study confirms that when it comes to names, people prefer those that are easy to pronounce, by English standards, to those that are more difficult. In fact, University of California, Irvine, researchers and their colleagues found that people are more likely to trust strangers with easier-to-pronounce names than those with difficult-to-pronounce names. “Easy names were evaluated as more familiar, less risky, and less dangerous,” wrote the authors in their study. “...Our findings show that easy names can confer a host of benefits on the people who bear them.”

Why do surfaces matter?

A common observation is that American culture is shallow and superficial. An attractive appearance, expensive clothes, and a toothy smile mean more to most than traits often invisible to the eye, such as spirit, integrity, and brains. The "land of the free and home of the brave," critics say, should be called the "land of the facelift and home of the fake." Is this a true portrait of contemporary America? And what if the very same is true of other cultures: if so, the horrors of our culture should rightfully be attributed to human nature, not American character.

In a new study on the impact of a surface trait, California researchers designed an experiment yet they enrolled students from Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand to be participants. First, they used newspapers and websites originating from 18 countries worldwide and recombined real first names with real last names to create 218 new combinations of foreign names. Next, they asked students to rate the ease with which the names could be pronounced on a scale from one to seven. Then they began a series of experiments: They asked participants which names were most familiar, which name they would choose from a list of tour guides when they wanted to avoid adventure and risk, and which names suggested a person might be dangerous. Subjects rated easy names as more familiar, less risky, and less dangerous.

“To the Fred Flintstone parts of our brains, that feeling of familiarity signals something that we can trust,” said Dr. Eryn Newman, a postdoctoral fellow in UC Irvine’s Department of Criminology, Law & Society. “But information that’s difficult to process signals danger.”

For a final experiment, the researchers asked participants to evaluate 16 difficult-to-fathom claims (“turtles are deaf”), which had been attributed to unknown people with either easy or difficult names, and asked, Which are true? The statements made by easier names were more often ranked as true than the statements attributed to difficult names. “Did the addition of easy names actually make claims seem more trustworthy?” the researchers asked in their published work. “Or did the difficult names push people in the direction of disbelieving those claims?”

Whatever the case may be, if nothing else we now know that America is not alone in its superficiality: New Zealanders make judgments based on surface traits as quickly as we do. The results of these experiments are worrisome. “Just think of the situations in which pronounceability could have a significant impact on people’s lives,” Newman said in a press release. “For example, we might ask whether the pronounceability of eyewitnesses’ names influences jury verdicts.”

Source: Newman EJ, Sanson M, Miller EK, et al. People with Easier to Pronounce Names Promote Truthiness of Claims. PLoS ONE. 2014.