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LiveScience Article Misses the Mark

Posted by Lauren Rugani on February 25, 2010

Photo courtesy of

As I was headline surfing today, this article from popped up. With my insatiable appetite for knowledge I’ll never need unless I appear on Jeopardy, I decided to take a break from serious news consumption and indulge myself with this little morsel.

Right off the bat, the headline – “Parents Choosing More Unusual Baby Names Now” – was a bit misleading. I thought I would get the fun, perennial list where Johns and Nicoles were replaced by Apples and Tuesdays, but not once did the article mention any of these unusual names that parents are allegedly choosing.

What I got instead was a convoluted summary of new “research” out of the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, where the primary claim (I think) was that choosing less common names *could* suggest an emphasis on uniqueness and individualism, but, if taken too far, could lead to narcissism. In fact, narcissism is first mentioned fairly early in the article, then several times afterward:

When taken too far, however, this individualism could also lead to narcissism, according to study researcher Jean Twenge, of San Diego State University.

The positive side of individualism, Twenge said, is that there is less prejudice and more tolerance for minority groups. But she warns that when individualism is taken too far, the result is narcissism.

“I think it is an indication of our culture becoming more narcissistic,” Twenge said.

But not until the very last paragraph does the article finally cave to the caveat:

“It remains to be seen whether having a unique name necessarily leads to narcissism later in life,” Twenge said.

Well, duh.

Unique names undoubtedly help children stand out, for better or worse. But this article didn’t mention any names, save for a passive example using James and Jacob, which illustrated that even the most common names each year are given to fewer children. When the article wasn’t spewing hard-to-digest facts (which I’ll get to in a minute), it was mostly harping on culture and parenting styles.

Aha! So the parents most likely to choose unusual names are also more likely to raise their children to feel entitled – hence the narcissism. Good old correlation ≠ causation. So why push the narcissism issue? Could it be because Twenge is the author of two books: “The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement” (Free Press, 2009) and “Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled – and More Miserable Than Ever Before” (Free Press, 2007) [to be fair, this was disclosed in the article], and she simply suckered a journalist with a gimicky “news hook” into assisting her self-promotion?

I haven’t read either of Ms. Twenge’s books, but a quick search for editorial reviews and synopses on Amazon tells me that they draw mostly on cultural examples like plastic surgery, Wall St., MySpace, and adulterous politicians (who, recently, have been named Bill, John, Eliot…). If someone has read these books I would appreciate knowing whether she talks at all about unusual names as a major contributor to narcissism.

Getting back to the LiveScience article, though. This paragraph was the first attempt at explaining statistics:

For instance, in the 1950s, the average first-grade class of 30 children would have had at least one boy named James (top name in 1950), while in 2013, six classes will be necessary to find only one Jacob, even though that was the most common boys’ name in 2007.

Perhaps your comprehension skills are finer than mine, or perhaps because it’s late at night, but I read this line three times before I realized it basically said that in 1950 1 in 30 children had the #1 most popular name, and by 2013 that number will drop to 1 in 180. The rest of the examples weren’t as imaginative but were equally as confusing to grasp conceptually.

Finally, the use of links in this online article were anything but helpful; two of them led to articles (also on LiveScience, and written by the same author over the past two years) that listed popular or unique baby names. Why wasn’t this information included in this article about unusual baby names. Save the links for an interesting side story, like a documentary about a boy named Nickles who grows up to be a billionaire. The other links were to an unrelated LiveScience story about baby boomers, to the LiveScience section on babies, and to another LiveScience article about narcissism, which – surprise, surprise – also touted Twenge’s books.

Because I found the article on a third-party site, the bottom of the page included a brief description of LiveScience that said: chronicles the daily advances and innovations made in science and technology. We take on the misconceptions that often pop up around scientific discoveries and deliver short, provocative explanations with a certain wit and style.

Sorry, LS, not this time.

But not until the very last paragraph does the article finally cave to the caveat:

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