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What's in a Name? Face Shape, Maybe

'Bob' Brings a Round Face to Mind; 'Tim' Suggests a Skinnier Face, Experts Say

WebMD Health News

May 17, 2007 -- Does your name match your face? If it does, you might be more memorable to people.

That's according to researchers including Melissa Lea, PhD, a visiting instructor of psychology at Union College in Schenectady, N.Y. Lea worked on the study while doing graduate work at Miami University in Ohio.

Lea and colleagues conducted three experiments at Miami University in Ohio.

First, they asked 150 students in an introductory psychology class to use a computer software program to sketch the facial features of imaginary men with one of the following 15 names: Bob, Bill, Mark, Joe, Tim, John, Josh, Rick, Brian, Tom, Matt, Dan, Jason, Andy, and Justin.

Using the computer program, the students tweaked a standard set of male facial features to come up with a face that they thought suited their assigned name. The drawings didn't include eyeglasses or facial hair.

Another group of students approved the drawings, which suggests that people may associate certain facial features with certain names.

Matching Faces and Names

In the second experiment, the researchers asked 139 other students to match the drawings and names from the first experiment.

The faces and names were printed separately and shuffled. Ten out of 15 times, the students matched the faces and names correctly.

Finally, in the third experiment, the researchers showed the names and faces to 67 students on a computer screen. In a series of quizzes, the students learned to link the names and faces.

The students learned the faces and names more quickly when they suited each other. For instance, they learned "Bob" faster when he had a round face, not a thin face.

That finding suggests that people may be better at remembering names when they seem to suit the person's face.

Perception of a Face

What's with the facial stereotypes? The researchers aren't sure, but they suggest that perhaps people subconsciously expect face shapes to match the sound of a name.

"One possibility is that the sound of the names bleed over into our perception of the face," researcher Robin Thomas, PhD, tells WebMD in an email.

Thomas, who worked on the study, is an associate professor of psychology at Miami University in Ohio.

"For example, 'Bob' is a round-sounding name, whereas 'Tim' is a thin, angular-sounding name -- just the same attributes that characterize the faces for these names our participants produced," says Thomas.

Thomas says the researchers also want to learn whether names "produce a type of illusion in terms of your perception of the face." In other words, you might expect "Andy" to look a certain way, even if he doesn't.

"Think of how bizarre a glass of water tastes if you expect it to be 7-Up instead," says Thomas.

None of the drawings depicted women's faces or nonwhite men's faces, so it's not clear whether the findings apply universally.

The study has been accepted for publication in a forthcoming edition of the journal Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, according to a news release from Miami University in Ohio.

  • Do you think your face fits your name? Tell us on the WebMD Message Boards.

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