Researchers caution that, while this trend indicates the increasing value parents are putting on uniqueness, it could lead to narcissistic behavior that will isolate children from the crowd their parents hope they will stand out from.
For the study, researchers analyzed the names given to more than 325 million babies born in the US between 1880 and 2007. They found that – while Jacob is the top boy’s name for 2008 and Emma is the top moniker for girls – these familiar names and others are being given to a smaller percentage of newborns overall.
Researchers found that in 1955, nearly one-third (32%) of boys received one of the ten most popular names, but by 2007, less than 10% got a common name.
For girls, the percentage receiving common names is even lower. In 1955, about one in four (22%) girls received one of the ten most popular names. By 2007 it had dropped to only 8%.
In 1955 the average first-grade class of 30 children would have at least one boy named James, which was the most popular name for boys born in 1949, the analysis found. In 2013, six classes will be necessary to find only one Jacob, even though that was the most common boy’s name in 2007.
For both male and female names, the decrease in the use of common names was most dramatic during the 1990s. As late as 1990, half of boys received one of the 50 most common names, but by 2007 less than one-third did. The number of girls receiving one of the 50 most common names fell from 37% to 22% from 1990 to 2007.
According to study co-author W. Keith Campbell, this change happened at the same time that Americans seem to have embraced more individualistic traits such as assertiveness and self-esteem on psychological questionnaires.
“Unique names may have some benefits such as creating a more individual identity, but they run the risk of promoting separateness, which is linked to narcissism,” said Campbell, psychology professor at the University of Georgia and co-author of The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement.
“These days, you don’t have to be the child of a celebrity to get a name as unique as Shiloh, Suri or Apple,” said Jean Twenge, SDSU psychology professor and co-author.
Twenge links the shift toward unique names to the increasing value of uniqueness in today’s society. “Parents used to give their children common names so they would fit in and their names would be easy to pronounce and spell. Now, they give their child a unique name so their kid will stand out and be a star.”
About the research: The study used the Social Security Administration database of social security card holders as a basis for the name analysis.