Every name is associated with demographic baggage: information about the bearer’s age, gender, ethnicity, and other basic personal features. Take the name Dorothy, for example. Imagine that you’re about to open your front door to a stranger named Dorothy. What kind of person would you expect Dorothy to be? First, Dorothy is more likely to be an elderly lady than a young woman. Dorothy was the second-most-popular girl’s name in the 1920s, and fourteen of every hundred baby girls born during that decade were named Dorothy. That multitude of Dorothys is now approaching age ninety. In contrast, the name is almost nonexistent among girls born during the twenty-first century
The reverse is true of the name Ava, which was almost nonexistent before the twenty-first century but dominates the most recent U.S. Census. Apart from age, names convey ethnic, national, and socioeconomic information. Base rates suggest that Dorothy and Ava are almost certainly white, Fernanda is likely to be Hispanic, and Aaliyah is probably black. Luciennes and Adairs tend to be wealthy white children, and Angels and Mistys tend to be poorer white children. Likewise, Björn Svensson, Hiroto Suzuki, and Yosef Peretz are almost certainly males of Swedish, Japanese, and Israeli descent, respectively. More narrowly, Waterlily and Tigerpaw sound like the offspring of aging hippies, while Buddy Bear and Petal Blossom Rainbow sound like names that celebrities might choose for their children.
One reason why personal names are so important, then, is that they allow people to categorize us almost automatically. In their book Freakonomics, Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner describe a strong relationship between a mother’s education and the names she chooses for her children. White boys named Ricky and Bobby are less likely to have mothers who finished college than are white boys named Sander and Guillaume. Since education improves spelling, it comes as no surprise that white boys named Micheal and Tylor tend to have less educated mothers than do white boys named Michael and Tyler. Similar patterns emerge when you compare a child’s name with family household income. White girls named Alexandra and Rachel tend to be wealthier than white girls named Amber and Kayla.
Of course, it’s important to note that the relationships between income, education, and naming preferences are not causal—just because poorer children tend to have consistently different names from wealthier children doesn’t mean that girls named Alexandra are financially better off because they’ve been named advantageously. A likely alternative is that people from different socioeconomic and educational backgrounds inhabit different cultural environments, which in turn shape their preferences for particular names.
Social labels aren’t born dangerous. There’s nothing inherently problematic about labeling a person “right-handed” or “black” or “working class,” but those labels are harmful to the extent that they become associated with meaningful character traits. At one end of the spectrum, the label “right-handed” is relatively free of meaning. We don’t have strong stereotypes about right-handed people, and calling someone right-handed isn’t tantamount to calling them unfriendly or unintelligent. In contrast, the terms “black” and “working class” are laden with the baggage of associations, some of them positive, but many of them negative. When a person is labeled “black,” we’re primed to perceive the characteristics that we tend to associate with “blackness” more generally, which is why students drew racially ambiguous faces with typically black features when they were told the face belonged to a “black” person.
Sometimes, meaningless labels accidentally acquire meaning. By convention, world maps place the Northern Hemisphere above the Southern Hemisphere, though there’s no inherent reason to equate cardinal direction with vertical position.
This association might be trivial if it didn’t have commercial consequences. In one experiment, for example, people believed that a shipping company would charge $235 more to transport goods between two locations if they were making the trip from south to north rather than north to south. The reason: the northbound trip seemed “uphill,” requiring more effort and possibly more gas. A second group of people were more willing to drive to a store located five miles south of the city center rather than a practically identical store five miles north of the city center, again because reaching the northerly store seemed to demand more effort than did reaching the southerly store. Meanwhile, a third group preferred to live in the northern part of town, presumably because its “elevated” location rendered it superior to the town’s southern suburbs.
Symbols and images are also powerful because we perceive them so effortlessly and so rapidly. A century before Mock designed Complex 320-325, Russian author Ivan Turgenev wrote, “A picture shows me at a glance what it takes dozens of pages of a book to expound.” Now shortened to “a picture is worth a thousand words,” this aphorism suggests correctly that symbols and other meaningful images have the capacity to quickly inspire extreme reactions, ranging from anger and fear to joy and celebration. They’re especially powerful because we process symbolic images very quickly—more quickly than we process the meaning of words—and they correspondingly embed themselves more deeply in our memories
Symbols, then, are magnets for meaning, and they have the power to shape our thoughts and behaviors just as words and labels do. They accomplish this feat by priming (or preparing) us for particular thoughts and behaviors.
There are many supersymbols, but one of the most powerful and pervasive is the symbol of monetary currency. There’s no particular reason why currency should take the form of bills and coins—societies have bartered with beads, rum, and gemstones—but bills and coins have become symbolic of currency across much of the world today. Poets, singers, and bohemians have romanticized the absence of money for decades, but in truth it’s hard to get by without relying on at least a moderate stash. English writer Somerset Maugham put it best, perhaps, when he suggested, “Money is like a sixth sense, and you can’t make use of the other five without it.” Indeed, it’s difficult to enjoy the best food, cologne, artwork, music, and clothing if you don’t part with money beforehand.
In one study, students were asked to stare at either a computer screensaver of bills floating in water or fish floating in water. When asked whether they might like to donate some or all of the $2 they were given for participating in the study to a university student fund, the students who watched the money floating across the screen donated only 77 cents on average, compared with the heftier average sum of $1.34 donated by students who watched the fish floating across the screen. It’s unfair to label the students “Scrooges,” but symbolic reminders of money and wealth certainly nudged them toward selfishness.
The Mere Presence of Other People
In some settings, your understanding of reality is independent of other people. For example, try to answer these questions:
Question 1: Is your body comfortable, or would you be more comfortable with the help of heating or air-conditioning?
Question 2: Is the room you’re in light enough, or would you be more comfortable under the glow of an extra lamp?
Even if you live alone in a shack, thousands of miles from civilization, you can answer these questions quite easily. Humans and other animals know instinctively whether the ambient temperature is comfortable and whether the environment is bright enough to enable them to see.
Now try this very different question:
Question 3: Given the amount of electricity you use to power the heating, air-conditioning, and lighting in your home, are you being good to the environment?
There’s an important difference between this third question and the first two questions. This one is much more difficult to answer in the absence of social standards. Even if you knew that your household used 5,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity last year, how would you evaluate the environmental impact of that figure? Like so many questions that tap into behavioral norms, it’s very difficult to assess your behavior without the help of comparison standards.
Opower was founded in Virginia in 2007 by two longtime friends. The company promised to improve communication between power providers and consumers by harnessing the tools of behavioral science. As of 2012, Opower had contracts with more than fifty utility companies across twenty-two U.S. states. Each month, Opower sends a report to each household containing not just the standard consumption figures, but also a simple summary of the household’s electricity use compared with the rest of the population. The most important part of the report is the Last Month Neighbor Comparison, which features two pieces of information: how much energy you’re using relative to your efficient neighbors, and a description of your use as “more than average,” “good,” or “great.”
Consumers who achieve “greatness” by using considerably less electricity than their neighbors are rewarded with two smiling faces, whereas those who are merely good are greeted with a single smiling face. Opower has been incredibly successful, reducing power consumption in catchment areas by an average of 2.5 percent per person—a long-term saving of almost a billion kilowatt-hours across the United States since the company’s inception. What’s made Opower so successful is its recognition of two critical factors: first, that people don’t know how to evaluate their power without knowing how much electricity other households are consuming; and second, that people respond to the virtual acclaim and criticism that comes from simple social cues like smiling faces. More recently, the company has released an iPhone app that allows users to compete with their friends for the title of “most energy efficient.” The real or even imagined presence of fellow energy consumers drives competition, and people respond by curbing their appetite for electricity.
Cultural legacies have a similar influence on how we perceive people and social interactions. Just as Chinese people are more likely than Americans to focus on objects, rather than their backgrounds, so they also believe that people are overlapping entities who relate to the other people in their lives. Westerners (people from the United States, Canada, Western Europe, Australia, and New Zealand, for example) are more likely to believe that they are distinct from other people, so even when they become very close to friends or loved ones, they still see themselves as individuals. This philosophical belief, known as individualism, is very different from the East Asian (Japanese, Chinese, and Korean, for example) belief in collectivism, which implies that everyone is interconnected, that our identities overlap, and our actions should benefit the group as a whole above any one individual. Although people from both cultural groups recognize that they’re at once individuals and members of a group, the individual component looms larger for Westerners, while the collective component carries relatively more weight for Easterners.
In one series of experiments, researchers asked American and Japanese students to interpret the emotions of a cartoon man who stood in front of a background filled with four other male and female cartoon characters. Sometimes all five shared the same emotional expression, but at other times the figure at the front seemed to have a different expression from those of the figures behind him, as in the case below.
When the students were asked to judge the central character’s emotions—whether he was happy, sad, or angry—72 percent of the Japanese students said they were unable to ignore the emotions of the people in the background, while only 28 percent of the American students had the same reaction. Of course, the Japanese students then rated the happy character as less happy, the sad character as less sad, and the angry character as less angry when the four characters in the background expressed different emotions. As in the study that featured tigers and fighter jets, the Japanese students spent plenty of time looking at the four faces in the background, whereas the Americans focused almost exclusively on the expression of the large face in the foreground.
Americans take the virtues of liberty and individual freedom for granted, but since East Asians pay so much attention to collective well-being, culture researchers have questioned whether they might emphasize the values of harmony and conformity over uniqueness and independence.
People across the world have very different associations with the same colors, which also suggests that these links are a product of the environment as well as inbuilt biological preferences. Most people across the world favor blue—the so-called blue phenomenon—but that’s also because it’s universally associated with clear skies and calming oceans. The few countries that associate blue primarily with sadness—Hong Kong, for example—also tend to rate it less favorably. People in the United States like black, possibly because they associate it with strength and masculinity, while it’s less popular in Colombia, where it implies sadness and formality. Color associations are especially powerful in the realm of foods, where red implies the richness of cherries, apples, and red meat, and purple implies that something’s amiss (unless you’re eating acai berries, one of the few natural foods that take on a purplish hue).
Colors shape how we think and behave across a diverse array of contexts, and sometimes the same color has different effects depending on the context. Red fosters romance as it signals the flush of attraction, but it also prompts alertness and vigilance in the face of taxing mental tasks. Blue deters would-be criminals from misbehaving, but it also alleviates the symptoms of exhaustion and seasonal depression. Some of these effects are grounded in human biology: red acts as matchmaker because it signals sexual arousal, and blue light halts the production of sleep-inducing melatonin by mimicking the properties of natural sunlight. Other effects capitalize on associations, as blue appears to deter crime by invoking the blue lights on a police car, while red promotes vigilance by calling to mind the color of stop signs and flashing lights on emergency vehicles.
Weather and Warmth
This might seem like an outrageous claim—that sunnier days bring on a mental stupor—but it’s a claim that’s backed with real-world evidence. In one study, social psychologists sprang a surprise memory test on shoppers who were leaving a small magazine shop in Sydney, Australia. Before the shoppers entered the store, the researchers placed ten small ornamental objects on the store counter—four plastic animals, a toy cannon, a piggy bank, and four Matchbox cars. After leaving the store, the shoppers were asked to remember as many of the ten items as possible, and to also pick the ten items from a list of twenty that included the ten correct items and ten new items. The researchers conducted the experiment on fourteen different days across a two-month period, between 11:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m.; some of those days were clear and sunny, whereas others were cloudy and rainy. The shoppers recalled three times as many items on the rainy days as on the sunny days, and they were approximately four times as accurate when identifying the ten objects from the longer list of twenty items.
The researchers explained that gloomy weather hampers our mood, which in turn makes us think more deeply and clearly. Humans are biologically predisposed to avoid sadness, and they respond to sad moods by seeking opportunities for mood repair and vigilantly protecting themselves against whatever might be making them sad. In contrast, happiness sends a signal that everything is fine, the environment doesn’t pose an imminent threat, and there’s no need to think deeply and carefully. These contrasting mental approaches explain why the shoppers remembered the ten trinkets more accurately on rainy days; the rainy days induced a generally negative mood state, which the shoppers subconsciously tried to overcome by grazing the environment for information that might have replaced their dampened sad moods with happier alternatives.
The same vigilance brought on by poor weather also tempers the enthusiasm of financial experts, who tend to avoid investing on rainy days. In the early 1990s, an economist managed to gather data on weather conditions and stock exchange data in New York City between 1927 and 1989. Noting that stock traders, like all people, tend to be happier and therefore more optimistic on sunny days, the economist predicted that the stock markets would appreciate in value on sunny rather than cloudy days. Indeed, traders were more bullish on sunny days, driving prices upward as they invested with relative abandon.
Humans have harnessed nuclear energy, and sent a spacecraft more than 12 billion miles from the earth, but we still haven’t found a way to control the weather. Some of the world drowns in flood while other parts wither in drought, and tornadoes and hurricanes are more and more powerful and unpredictable in the wake of global warming. In contrast to the other mental forces in the world around us—colors and locations—weather conditions are difficult to tame. But the volatility of weather patterns also has an unexpected upside, because it tells us something fascinating about the human mind.