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Social Identity Theory

Why we look like our names…or does this mean I look like a duck?

in Editor Pick/Media Psychology/Work Psychology by

For many of those who know me, I have had a bill for a mouth and a feathered complexion for many years. Let’s not be silly here. Aside from the u, c, and k following the letter d, there’s nothing about this name that reflects who I am. It’s just a name, right?

Wrong. According to the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, a person’s name may be more closely aligned to our physical appearance than you would think. In one study, when shown a photo and a list of possible names, participants seemed to be able to link the right name to the face more often than could be explained by chance.

Suddenly, all those moments you had when you were thinking, “He really looks like a Peter,” may have been right all along.

The specific mechanisms why we can do this are not entirely clear. However, when researchers were presented with unfamiliar names from other cultures, the effect vanished. The researchers suggest that the stereotypes and cultural norms about names establish mental “schemas” that people use to predict how a person looks.

In the absence of these schemas, there is no easy reference we can use to make accurate predictions.

One possible explanation is that we simply match the name to the face. That is, that little infant, Bob, looked like Uncle Robert when he first made his way into the world. This seems unlikely. First, many parents have a name selected well before the delivery day.

Second, we have all been in a situation where we hold off saying “her” or “him” when meeting an infant for the first time. Why? Usually, babies look very similar and even gender is difficult to differentiate during infancy. I can recall gazing lovingly at my first-born daughter in the hospital only to realise I was staring lovingly at some other baby.

This also explains why babies sometimes get sent home with the wrong parents. They don’t usually have pronounced facial features until much later. Did you ever take the wrong toddler home? No? What about the wrong spouse? Ok, let’s not discuss that one.

The findings from this study underscore the importance of social identity. Whilst many of our personal characteristics are strongly wired at birth through genetics, our social and cultural upbringing also shapes what we value and how we behave.

Fashion, for example, continually changes and influences how we dress, style our hair and groom ourselves.  As such, our outward appearance can reflect the expectation of society. Perhaps our names may subtly influence how we style our hair to conform with preconceived ideas of what a person with “that name’” looks like.

Interestingly, one of the key physical characteristics that we can change quite easily is hairstyle, and this was found to be a cue for name recognition. That is, when people accurately predicted a name, it was often based on matching the person’s identity with their chosen hairstyle. Participants did not realise this, of course, but the researchers could determine this based on measuring where participants were focusing their gaze.

I’ve often wondered what it would be like to be called “Nick Smith” or “Nick Jones”, something very different from the “Duck” surname. At school, it was a non-stop circus of quack, quack jokes and Donald/Daffy Duck references.

A name like “Duck” could be a curse if you always wanted to be taken seriously and if you wanted to blend in with everyone else. But it can be a strength if you value being different.

In adulthood, the jokes remain but I’ve learned to appreciate having a relatively silly and comical sounding name. People also seem to like pairing it with “Dr”. Perhaps the juxtaposition with such a formal title is pleasing for people.

A good name can also make you more endearing. There was that clip of Melbourne-based news reporter Amy Parks finally giving a news report from the Melbourne-based “AAMI Park”. This mere coincidence gained the reporter at lot of attention and social approval.  That clip currently sits on a couple of hundred thousand views on YouTube.

A name may not always be so harmless. There are apparently a lot of people sharing the names of notorious fictional serial killers (96 Norman Bates, 12 Jason Voorhees, and five Freddy Kruegers) in the United States. Is it a nice icebreaker to be called Norman Bates or something that would feel a bit creepy?

Interestingly, how much you like your name is also related to your self-esteem. Individuals who rate their name lower than others also tend to have lower self-esteem. Self-esteem is believed to be a gauge of social acceptance. That is, lower self-esteem indicates that we feel less accepted by our social groups than individuals with higher self-esteem. So, we now know that our names can tell us a lot about how we feel and behave. These things are intrinsically linked to fitting in.

Over the years, I’ve also accumulated a number of odd friends and colleagues. I sometimes wonder if my own experiences with my name have led me to look to other quirky individuals with a similar sense of humour, or strange peculiarities that make them black sheep–or black ducks–in their own right.

Have a think about your own name. Has it had any influence on your friends, colleagues, or career? Would a different name elevate your status in a job interview? Is it associated with a sense of pride or something you’d rather redefine?

Quack, quack, quack.

Weinstein, the Nazis and you

in Editor Pick/Media Psychology/Work Psychology by

In the red corner is Harvey Weinstein. Weighing in at over 250 pounds and a net worth of $250 millon. Nominated for over 100 awards, Academy awards winner, with an influence over some of the biggest names in Hollywood.

In the blue corner, every single person in society including: disgusted members of the public, former actors and actresses who knew directly or indirectly of his actions, assistants, victims of abuse, and almost every person in the media.

Each day, the number one story across the globe appears to be Harvey Weinstein. Yet another person comes out to share their experience. And, each day, commentators in the media and important global figureheads frown with disapproval. ‘Why would so many people stand by and let this happen?’ Indeed, if you weren’t confronting Weinstein, you have been dubbed an ‘enabler’.

The reason why the Weinsteins of the world do what they do without fear of retribution is something that has long been studied and understood by social psychologists. And it has to do with an anecdote about Nazis. Yep, our favourite real life and Hollywood villains.

Early studies in social psychology attempted to explain how seemingly normal people could commit atrocities, like the Nazis in World War 2. Were these people truly evil or placed in circumstances that made them do horrible things?

Many are familiar with the Stanley Milgrim experiments where under pressure students would administer seemingly painful electric shocks to other students. Some would do so even to the point of the other student screaming in pain. However, this was all a façade. Nobody was truly in pain. The study was simply examining whether a normal person would follow orders even in the face of cruelty.

Since these early experiments, social psychologists have demonstrated that people behave in peculiar ways when surrounded by others. For example, we are willing to ignore or downplay evidence so that we can maintain harmony with a group—groupthink. Some believe this can lead to catastrophic outcomes when risk is downplayed and overlooked.

Many of our phobias are related to how we are perceived by others. We may fear public speaking even though there is no true physical threat. Job interviews tend to be the more stressful than they should be. The first day of school or a new job are confronting experiences because of the unknown social aspect.

In public, we all instinctively conform to fit in with our surroundings. How many of you feel uncomfortable to hold a phone conversation on the train in the morning when everyone is quiet? How difficult is it to disagree with the majority in a workshop when it may mean slowing down progress or having to debate an issue?

It’s probably not too surprising to social psychologists that Weinstein was able to do what he did. Through his sheer physical size and powerful personality, he could intimidate. But he also has a ridiculous amount of money and influence from his position. If you’ve ever hesitated about speaking up on a workplace issue, then imagine how impossible it would be to challenge the might of Weinstein, surrounded by others who played along.

But, interestingly, research also shows how individuals can overcome intense social pressures. In one study, a participant was asked to judge whether a line was shorter, longer, or the same as another line. If they were placed in a room of people who purposely misjudged the length, the participant would also align their view with the rest of the group. However, if only one person disagreed, it was enough for the participant to feel comfortable to disagree.

Doesn’t this sound like what’s happening now with Weinstein? All it took was a few people to speak out to give others the confidence to do the same.

What we can learn from Weinstein isn’t just a lesson on morals, decency, and corruption. It is also a lesson on how we as individuals can fight the social current in any context and bring out change. You might even find people jumping in to support you.

Ding ding, ding!

Tony Abbott’s onion legacy

in Editor Pick/Media Psychology by



The onion is one of the most cultivated species of the genus ‘Allium’, has been eaten since as early as 5000 BC, and is a rich source of energy and vitamins. We know it as the vegetable that causes us to tear up and use it in some of the most popular dishes on the planet.

It was also devoured, raw, by our former Australian Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, on live television much to the horror of Australians.

Now that Abbott has exited as leader, he has been commemorated on twitter with the hashtag #putoutyouronions with photos of onions, mocking the legacy of the former leader.

It’s strange that a man would eat a raw onion like an apple. It’s stranger that we think it’s strange. After all, an onion is just food.

From an early age, we all learn to categorise food. We start with simple categories like ‘yucky’ and ‘yummy’. My daughters have started to differentiate between ‘food’ and ‘treats’ realising that some food is yucky, some is yummy and some foods are something much nicer.

Many of us can probably remember those confronting moments in childhood when we were informed that a tomato is actually a fruit not a vegetable.

Throughout our adult lives, we continue to encounter unusual food habits. Cooks amaze us by combining unusual combinations of ingredients on the plate, such as bacon and maple syrup, and coca cola and chicken.

Chef Heston Blumenthal has made a name for himself by toying with our expectations, such as creating an icecream dessert that looks exactly like a boiled egg . The conflict with our taste buds and head creates an exciting experience.

Egg and toast

Our food categories  and rules for what’s normal are always being re-written and challenged.

These culinary expectations are also reinforced by our cultural experiences. It’s quite common for individuals to eat unusual dishes such as insects in China, Haggis (sheep’s stomach) in Scotland, and Vegemite (yeast extract) in Australia. When you enter these cultures for the first time, you are more likely to accept that these choices aren’t wrong. You just haven’t gotten used to them yet.

However, within our own culture, we can instinctively ostracise and ridicule somebody who steps outside our own cultural norms.

At the heart of this behaviour is our social identity, which is our shared values, behaviours and practices that unify us. When someone departs from this social identity, we can distance them, placing them into an ‘out-group’.

Deviations from norms seems to be especially personal with food. Most of us have been in that situation where we felt obliged to eat more when we weren’t hungry so not to offend the host. We’ve probably all been shunned when we refuse to partake in a meal or try something new.

Of course, in some situations, these norm violations can be endearing rather than shocking. Imagine if Johnny Depp was filmed chomping on an onion during an interview for a movie. No doubt this kind of behaviour might simply reinforce our views about his idiosyncratic personality.

A politician, however, needs to be more cautious with their branding. They need to be conservative and ‘normal’ yet also relatable and interesting. They need to be hardworking and focussed but also shown to be light-hearted and relaxed.

Tony Abbott has always branded himself with strong conservative morals and values. Perhaps munching on an onion was an impulsive moment he wanted to show his lighter side.

Comedian, Ricky Gervais, recently said in an interview, ‘Clowns aren’t funny because they try to make you laugh. An angry man not meaning to be funny, have something happening to him like falling over and it’s always funny.’ Replace the word ‘angry’ with ‘serious’ and it helps explain why Abbott eating the onion is so amusing. It juxtaposes with his usual stoic demeanour or what he is painfully trying to project.

But our fascination with this onion tells us a lot about the observers too. We are quick to ostracise and judge people who divert from norms because it makes us feel better about ourselves. We are also quick to turn on our politicians and mock them.

A psychologist who specialises in eating disorders once explained to me that there are very few things that are more personal that what choose to consume in our bodies. His view was that society’s fascination with what everyone is eating drives a preoccupation with food. What people consume, he argues, is nobody’s business.

In short, it’s probably our unhealthy preoccupation with the onion that’s really the problem.

Better not start with the time former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd ate his own earwax…


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