Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Guest Post: Scientific Proof That Some Character Names Are Hotter Than Others

This week's Fresh and Delightful Springtime Guest Post is brought to you by Livia Blackburne, a graduate student in Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT. Her blog is A Brain Scientist's Take on Creative Writing

Let’s say you’re writing a sizzling hot romance with a tall, handsome hero and a super sexy heroine. You probably think a lot about how their personalities and looks affect their attractiveness. But what about their names?

Dr. Amy Perfors is a Professor at the University of Adelaide. While a student at MIT, she conducted what might just be the most awesome study ever conducted involving the website “Hot or Not.” For those unfamiliar with Hot or Not, it’s a website where people upload pictures of themselves and ask other users to rate their hotness from 1 to 10.

Perfors was interested in whether certain names make people more attractive. She posted pictures of men and women and changed the names to see whether they affected the picture’s rating. She found that for men, names with stressed vowels formed in the front of the mouth (Dave, Craig, Ben, etc…) made their owners more attractive than names with back-of-the-mouth vowels (Paul, Tom, Charles). For women, it was the opposite. Back stressed vowels (Laura, Julie, Robin), resulted in more attractive ratings than front stressed vowels (Melanie, Jamie, Jess).

Why? Perfors has a guess. There’s some psycholinguistic evidence that people perceive front mouth sounds as smaller and back-of-mouth sounds to be larger. There’s also evidence that women are attracted to gentle men over super macho men. The smaller sounding names might be making the men subconsciously seem more sensitive. Likewise, it could be that men are more attracted to women with a bit more spunk.

As a writer, does it surprise you that the sound of your name would affect how your physical attractiveness is perceived? What other factors do you take in mind when choosing names for your characters?

Scientific footnote: These are fun results, but as always, be conservative about interpretation. If your character’s name isn’t optimally voweled, don’t panic. The effect is a small one, about .5 points out of 10. In Perfor’s study, a more attractive person was still rated as more attractive than a plain face, regardless of name. Likewise, in fiction, characterization, dialogue and point of view will trump the names you choose. For more about the study, see Perfor’s in depth explanation here:


Side-note from INTERN: Does this mean the name INTERN would be more attractive on a male intern? Hmmm...a change in profile picture might be required.

Another side-note from INTERN: INTERN realizes that she has been blogging less and been somewhat off the radar over the last little while. This is partly because working at Venny McPulitzer has been beating the living snot out of her. But she is almost finished with Venny McP, and the oracular chickens are predicting major life changes in the near future. Detailed update tomorrow.


  1. The oracular chickens are predicting major changes? Well, then, we must heed them. Very curious to hear about said potential changes.

  2. Hope the chickens aren't predicting the end of the world, too. Hope things are well with you, and thanks for the fun name post! :)

  3. Good luck with them chickens.

    Also, wow. Time flies. I feel like you just started interning there.

  4. Great post. I've always wondered what made some names more attractive than others.

    Looking forward to your news!

  5. Too cool! I'm such a sucker for statistics :)

  6. Can I borrow the oracle chickens? I'd like to know my writign future :)

  7. Great post Livia! I just read a post wondering why people tend to cry more at movies than at books, and it has me pretty interested in the brain connections in literature.

  8. Great Post, you should see 'The Science of Attraction' series from discovery channel! Really interesting. Livia's blog is brilliant, thanks for the link :)

  9. I'm pretty sure I've chosen names for my characters either at random, and also a few of them are names borrowed from people I know. :)

  10. Interesting...

    Of course, the psycholinguistic evidence behind sound symbolism is not at all conclusive. A lot of time has gone into gathering counter-examples, both for study and for fun. The most famous in this case are "big" and "small", which directly contradict the theory.

    Also, the prevailing wisdom is that sound segments are independent of meaning, and only words have true semantic content. That said, playing with sounds like this has been a favorite technique of poets for a very long time.

    As for the sexiness of names independent of pictures, I think the second group of girls score much higher than the first, though the guy names seem more mixed.

  11. At a conference, a romance writer on a panel said that she once auctioned off for charity the naming of her male lead. The winning bidder was her father (awkward!), who wanted the lead named after him (AWKWARD!) - and his name is Melvin. Her publishers actually vetoed it, and he had to choose another name.

    I think she said, though, that one of the foreign translations used the name Melvin, presumably publishing in a country that had a different impression of it.

  12. Thanks for the comments, all!

    Claire -- do you have a link to the post?

    Emily -- I'll have to check out that video series

    Atsiko -- Good points. I definitely agree that you can't make a strong case for a systematic link between sound and meaning. If you know of good review articles on the sound symbolism debate, please do pass them my way.

    Nic - Lol, that's hilarious. And a good reminder that while this result is cool, vowels aren't everything and there are certainly exceptions. Melvin is actually a front stressed name, but I guess other factors make it unappealing.

  13. None off the top of my head, Livia, but if I come across any...

  14. Super interesting - I've never heard of this kind of thing before. I'll have to think about those names a little more :)

  15. Awesome research, Livia! Thanks for sharing.

    In case anyone is interested, and you don't already know, here are the English front vowel sounds (in words to make it easy on us, and including diphthongs): bead, bade, bid, bed, bad

    Middle: bird, bud

    Back: baud (if you have different vowels in cot and caught, they're both back), bough, bode, book, boot

    Boy and bide begin back and end front, so