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Help for names’ sakes


We’re more likely to help people with the same name as us.
© Photodisc

Shared names prompt good deeds.

When seeking help from a stranger, ask someone who shares your name: people are more likely to assist a namesake, an e-mail study has revealed1.

A shared name indicates two people are likely to share genes, so evolution may have taught us to be nice to our namesakes, suggests psychologist Margo Wilson who carried out the study at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada.

Unusual names are particularly good at eliciting help from others with the same moniker. Which makes sense: the less common a name, the more likely it is that two people sharing it are blood relations.

Help’s at handle

The US census records 88,217 surnames, 4,275 female names and 1,219 male names, ranked in order of commonness from Mary to Willodean and James to Broderick.

Wilson and her colleague Kirsten Oates took some names from the top of the charts, such as Jones, Smith, Gary and Nancy and some from between positions 100 and 300, including Andrews, Morrison, and the first names Dwayne and Tracey.

The duo set up e-mail accounts for 223 fictitious people bearing all permutations of common and uncommon names. They then posed as a student seeking information on sports team mascots, and sent out nearly 3,000 requests to strangers sharing either one, both or no names, asking for information on their local mascots.

About 12% of those sharing both names responded, compared with less than 2% of people sharing none. A shared first name or surname got a smaller response, but was better than nothing.

"When both names were shared, some people showed a great deal of excitement," says Wilson. The phantom namesakes received requests for more information about themselves, and their addresses.

Name dropping

These results are just what you’d expect, says Christopher Badcock, an evolutionary psychologist at the London School of Economics. "A surname goes down the generations by the same route as the person’s genes," Badcock says.

Women were the most diligent respondents. This sex bias is "baffling", comments ecologist Ben Hatchwell, of the University of Sheffield. Surnames pass down the male line, so you’d expect a name to be a much better guide to a man’s ancestry than a woman’s.

The precise relationship between shared names and genes is still unclear, Hatchwell adds. He also speculates that fashions in first names - such as the spate of Leo’s in Britain, following the birth of Prime Minister Tony Blair’s son - may influence the results.

Previous studies in North America showed that women tend to be families’ ’kin keepers’. They are better at staying in touch with distant relatives, and have a better knowledge of who’s related to whom, although this varies across cultures. Women also seem to be better at social contact in general.


  1. Oates, K. & Wilson, M. Nominal kinship cues facilitate altruism. Proceeding of the Royal Society B, DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2001.1862, (2002).

JOHN WHITFIELD | © Nature News Service

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