What's in a name? In some cases, longer life

March 25, 2016 by Lisa Cook, Andy Henion
Credit: Michigan State University

Black men with historically distinctive black names such as Elijah and Moses lived a year longer, on average, than other black men, according to new research examining 3 million death certificates from 1802 to 1970.

The study, co-authored by Michigan State University economist Lisa D. Cook, is one of the first to find benefits of having a racially distinctive name. Other studies that looked at current black such as Jamal and Lakisha suggest that having these modern-day monikers leads to discrimination.

"A number of studies indicate that modern black names can act as a burden, whereas our findings show that historical black names conveyed a large advantage over a person's lifetime," said Cook, associate professor in MSU's Department of Economics and James Madison College.

Using historical death certificate data from four states - Alabama, Illinois, Missouri and North Carolina - the researchers previously established the existence of a set of distinctive names given to , mainly in the early 20th century. The names range from Abraham to Booker to Isaac.

The current study examined mortality rates among men with those names. It found that having a distinctive black name added more than one year of life relative to other black males. The researchers ruled out socioeconomic and environmental factors such as single-parent households, education and occupation.

The life expectancy of black males and black names, 1802-1970. Credit: Michigan State University

"A whole additional year on their lives, in mortality terms, is remarkable," Cook said. "Even a third of a year is significant."

Many of the distinctive names come from the Bible and possibly denote empowerment. Cook, who has five generations of Baptist ministers in her family, said one theory is that men with these Old Testament names may have been held to a higher standard in academic and other activities, even implicitly, and had stronger family, church or community ties. These stronger social networks could help a person weather negative events throughout life.

Distinctive black names in the past and present. Credit: Michigan State University

"I think the teachers in these one-room schoolhouses - teachers who also taught Sunday school - probably placed implicit expectations on students with these distinctive names," Cook said. "And I think that gave them a status that they otherwise would not have had."

On the contrary, previous research has found that having distinctive modern names such as Tremayne and Tanisha has led to discrimination among job applicants, college students seeking mentors and researchers seeking federal funding. Researchers in the United States, Britain and elsewhere have studied the issue.

"When people see a name that's foreign or strange to them in their profession, implicitly they shut down, as these studies have shown," Cook said. "Then there is an extra layer of bias suggesting that this is possibly a female, poor or somehow unqualified candidate. Research has found that in the United States it's associated with racial discrimination and in Britain it's associated with class discrimination."

Explore further: African-Americans less likely to get Airbnb room: study

Related Stories

African-Americans less likely to get Airbnb room: study

December 12, 2015

People with African-American sounding names are discriminated against when trying to get a room on Airbnb, a Harvard study says, suggesting many who use the website fail to share its vision of a "trusted community."

Names influence racial bias among study participants

October 7, 2015

In a study exploring racial bias and how people use their mind's-eye image of an imagined person's size to represent someone as either threatening or high-status, UCLA researchers found that people envisioned men with stereotypically ...

Recommended for you

Experts uncover hidden layers of Jesus' tomb site

October 27, 2016

In the innermost chamber of the site said to be the tomb of Jesus, a restoration team has peeled away a marble layer for the first time in centuries in an effort to reach what it believes is the original rock surface where ...

Important ancient papyrus seized from looters in Israel

October 27, 2016

(Phys.org)—Eitan Klein, a representative of the Israel Antiquities Authority, has announced that an important papyrus document dated to 2,700 years ago has been seized from a group of Palestinian looters who reportedly ...

Ancient parrot fossil found in Siberia

October 26, 2016

(Phys.org)—A Russian paleontologist has discovered a parrot fossil uncovered in Siberia several years ago—the first evidence of parrots living in Asia. In his paper published in Biology Letters, Nikita Zelenkov describes ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet Mar 26, 2016
I cannot believe I am reading this Abraham, Isaac, Elijah and Moses--what is "black" about them? Look at any nonBlack Christian family tree and they pack out ancestry.
not rated yet Mar 26, 2016
What's black about these names? Black people used them for their children.
That's all it takes, for the context of this article. Nobody said they were *exclusively* black.
not rated yet Mar 26, 2016
I think the parents are to blame. I think someone who names their child Elijah or Moses is probably not your average person. I bet they invested more in their children than meets the eye. It seems obvious to me. Anyone I've ever known who named their child Elijah or Moses were investing something in their children. How we raise our children and what expectations we put on them is what pays off. I know what to expect out of teachers, so I don't count on it. However, I do know what to expect out of my children, and I am responsible for their vibe. Beautiful Spirits are what they are.
1 / 5 (1) Mar 27, 2016
Black men with historically distinctive black names such as Elijah and Moses lived a year longer

Yes, but with that name, they wished they didn't.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.