Popular baby names come and go — and math may explain why

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Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (StudyFinds.org) – Baby name trends come and go. From popular culture figures to celebrities in the news, parents draw inspiration from a lot of sources when naming their children. So how does a name like Emily go from trendy one year to trendy the next? Researchers from Carnegie Mellon University say the answer may come down to one surprising factor – mathematics.

Their study used a mathematical model to understand why baby names gain and then lose popularity over time. Even when analyzing ever-changing behavioral patterns, the math shows a constant “tug of war” between parents who want to stand out from the crowd and want their child to fit in too.

“I’m curious about everything, but I’m ignorant of common social trends,” Russell Goleman, associate professor in the Department of Social Sciences and Decision Making at Carnegie Mellon University, says in a media statement. “I have been intrigued by thinkers in the field of complex systems who study imbalance dynamics in the economy and society.”

Can social networks enter into this equation?

Most mathematics studies that look at economic issues and game theory (which studies strategy in competitive situations) eventually reach a middle point where everything equals – equilibrium.

“I wanted to use mathematics to describe two opposing drives – the desire to fit in and the desire to stand out at the same time,” Goleman explains. “They push you in opposite directions but you can want both.”

The study author adds that the desire for conformity when naming the child will bring the model closer to balance. On the contrary, the desire to choose a distinguished name moves the behavior of parents far from the center.

“Put them together, and they’ll still lead to balance,” Goleman continues.

The study author wanted to know how many different social factors the researchers could factor into these models before they bucked the trend. To do this, Goleman and his team added the behavior of various social networks to the mix, including communities, neighbors, colleagues, clubs, or other social groups. However, researchers note that social networks are not necessarily the same as social media.

“It was surprising that social networks made such a big difference,” Goleman says. “We modeled the dynamics with a lot of different networks, and the lack of convergence to equilibrium is actually pretty typical.”

Parents choose the names that suit them – with a twist

Ph.D. Student Erin Bugby has used a large database of children’s names from the Social Security Administration over the past 100 years to analyze parental behaviour. According to mathematical models, if baby names really settle into balance, then the same names will always be popular every year.

What the study authors found is that parents actually take popular names (like Emily), and then choose something similar — like Emma. For parents, the study found that this name gives the child something special but also socially acceptable compared to the more popular names of the time.

Interestingly enough, the math shows that a lot of moms and dads come to this conclusion and do the same! The end result is that a name like Emily is actually becoming less popular and a name like Emma makes it into the most popular baby name lists.

The results appear in the journal psychological review.

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