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February 09, 2015

Study: What makes a baby name trendy?

Celebrities surprisingly have little to do with it

Visit a playground and you’ll likely hear someone call out to a Sophia or Olivia. Meanwhile, the little ones' mom might be named Jennifer or Nicole.

Why is that?

A new study attempted to figure out the answer through a web-based experiment in which more than 100 random participants played "The Name Game," according to a Washington Post report.

The way it worked is the participants were shown a photo of a human face on the screen and asked to come up with a name for the person. At the same time, another player was shown the same face and given the same directions.

 Two to three decades ago, parents couldn't get enough of the names “Jessica” and “Jennifer” for their little newborn girls. Suddenly “Jessica” and “Jennifer” had become uncool in the eyes of new parents, who preferred names like “Isabella” and “Madison.”

If the names matched up, both players would get a reward. If they didn't, each player received a penalty and were able to see what the other person put for a name, and so it went on.

The findings of the study, conducted by physicist Andrea Baronchelli of City University London and author Damon Centola of the University of Pennsylvania, revealed that trends like baby names "often emerge suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, with no external forces driving their creation."

The Name Game

While the idea of spontaneous emergence has been around for decades, this study marks the first time it has been observed experimentally in a population of almost 100.

Moreover, the findings indicated that how people are connected will determine whether these spontaneous trends will go global or stay confined within smaller local pockets.

When participants were arranged geographically and restricted to play only against their nearest few neighbors, they would quickly agree on names within their region. But for the game as a whole, there would be several names competing for dominance with no global consensus. 

Everybody is just trying to agree with their social circle, and spontaneously there will be the emergence of a single consensus.

An infographic map created by Brian Lee Yung Rowe and featured in The Guardian shows how baby names spread across the United States. 

Many people assume that naming trends are driven by celebrities, but as the science shows, that isn't so.

How many Madonnas do you know? Or, considering all the Brittanys, Britneys, Brittanis, Brittanies, Brittneys, and Brittnis you encounter these days, you might think of Britney Spears; but she is in fact a symptom, not a cause, an article by Slate points out.

Most families look to the family just a few blocks over, the one with the bigger house and newer car. The kind of families that were the first to call their daughters Amber or Heather, and are now calling them Alexandra or Katherine. 

 Read the full study findings here.