Aren’t grandparents adorable? They’re sweet and kind, they’ve been married for decades, and they’ve got wonderful archaic 1920s names like Edward and Edwina. Last week, based on the anecdotal evidence of my own grandparents and a couple from an NPR report, we speculated that couples from that older generation were more likely to have similar names than couples from the current generation.
It seems plausible, but is it really true? We invited readers to give us the names of their own grandparents, as well as their current significant others, and they responded with over 3,000 names. Then we took a look at data from the U.S. Social Security Administration (SSA) about the distribution of names in the population. Do people pair up with people with the same name more frequently than if they were paired randomly?
We picked two years of SSA data to compare with our results: 1982 (about the “average” year our readers were born in) and 1932 (our guess as to when their grandparents would have been born). If you haven’t checked out the SSA names database, you should give it a look — it’s quite interesting. We considered the top 1,000 given names for both males and females in each year. Right away, we noticed an interesting pattern:
If you were born in the U.S. in 1932, you were significantly more likely to be given a name in the top 1,000 than in 1982. This was especially true for females. To put it another way, more different names are used today than half a century ago. You might think this would make it more likely for couples to have similar names if they were married half a century ago compared to today. But our results suggest otherwise. Let’s take a look at the data from the grandparents’ generation first:
In a random pairing of 1932 names (weighted for popularity), about 5.7 percent of pairs start with the same letter. The actual couples from our survey shared the same first letter 6.3 percent of the time — not significantly different from the random sample. We did several other tests of similarity and each came up with the same result. Even when we combined these tests into a overall score, there was no difference between our sample and a random sample.
But what about current-day couples? Here are those results:
Based on these responses, today’s couples are significantly more likely to share both the first letter of their names and the first two letters, whether you compare them to their grandparents, or to a random sample of names from 1982. They’re almost three times as likely as a random sample to share the first two letters of their names! When we combine several tests of similarity, we get the same result. Our readers are more likely to pair up with people who share similar names than you would expect based on chance.
Why might this be?
Here’s one possibility: Perhaps our readers are in shorter, more superficial relationships than their grandparents were. Maybe a similar name acts as an initial attractant, but those couples are more likely to break up over the long haul. We could test for this possibility by seeing if relationship length was correlated with name similarity. It should be inversely correlated if the couples who were attracted only by similar names eventually saw the light and split up. We found no correlation, positive or negative, for either age group.
Another possibility which we can’t test for: perhaps readers were more likely to participate in our survey if their names were similar to their partners. I think that’s unlikely, since we framed the survey to focus on the grandparent’s generation, but it is certainly a possibility.
Any other thoughts?