U.S. Immigrants’ Dilemma of Choosing “White-Sounding” Names

One grad student's predicament led to a revealing new study.

Immigrant names
Immigrants wait to take the Oath of Citizenship during a naturalization ceremony at Liberty State Park. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
Getty Images

People’s first names can have a profound impact on how others treat them, their job prospects and even — in an extreme, yet hypothetical situation — in life or death scenarios.

That’s what Xian Zhao, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Toronto found while studying first names in an academic capacity, The Atlantic reported. Zhao’s cousin and aunt changed their names from Pengyuan and Guiqing to Jason and Susan, respectively, when they moved to the U.S.; a switch he saw his peers embrace while he was studying for his Ph.D. in the States. He decided, however, that it wasn’t for him.

Instead, he stuck with Xian, which means “significant” and “outstanding.” “Hearing people calling me Alex or Daniel doesn’t mean anything to me,” he said.

The dilemma inspired his latest research, which he undertook with his Ph.D. advisor. Specifically, the study looked at the relationship between someone’s first name and whether people would offer them help in “hypothetical life-and-death situations.”

Alarmingly, they found, it matters.

An experiment with 850 white volunteers followed the “trolley problem,” in which an out-of-control train is about to run over five people on the tracks; pulling a lever to divert it would save them, but kill a helpless individual on another track. The in-harm’s-way individuals were from varying cultural backgrounds and included an Asian immigrant named Xian, an Asian immigrant named Mark, or a white male named Mark.

Most of the participants said they’d pull the lever — which is consistent with the problem’s standard findings. But the name of the sacrificed individual played a role.

The shares of participants who decided to sacrifice the white Mark and the Asian Mark were about 68%, while subjects were more likely to divert the train to hit Xian, which they chose to do 78% of the time.

The InsideHook Newsletter.

News, advice and insights for the most interesting person in the room.