Some of our current work in the Centre and the OU more broadly is looking at the persistent issue of the ‘attainment gap’ between white and non-white students in higher education. This issue has received a lot of attention over the last few years. A partial set of literature relating to black and minority ethnic attainment is available here. There is some high profile current work being funded by the Higher Education Academy into the issues.

One of the recommendations of recent syntheses of the literature is for future research to look to the relevance of teacher expectations of students. See for example:

Ball, S.J., Reay, D. and David, M. (2002) “Ethnic choosing”: Minority ethnic students, social class and higher education choice. London: Centre for Educational Studies. Available from:


Dhanda, M. (2010) Understanding Disparities in Student Attainment: Black and Minority Ethnic Students’ Experience. Wolverhampton: University of Wolverhampton. Available from:

During conversations about what kinds of research project might be useful in looking at issues of teacher expectations, the relevant of a student’s name was mentioned. It was agreed that it was worth think some more about, and so a few hours of searching the literature uncovered a few interesting sources. The sources relate to ethnicity, as well as name popularity, social class, gender, and perceived ‘intelligence’.

What is known?

Social psychologists seem to have done a lot of thinking about name stereotypes and have explored both the broad dimensions of attitudes towards personal names, and the effects of names in specific environments. In a review of empirical literature, Joubert (1993) concludes that “sex, age, intelligence, ethnicity, and general activity are among the dimensions that seem to be name associated” (p. 1140), and these dimensions feature prominently in the sources outlined below.

From school-based research

Name popularity

Busse and Seraydarian (1977) found that many children disliked classmates with unique names.

Harari and McDavid (1973) found that essays purported to have been authored by individuals with names associated with more positive stereotypes and which were more popular and attractive names were scored more highly (see Key sources section below).


Willis, Willis, and Grier (1982) concluded that African American children with unique names were more likely to be discriminated against both socially and academically.

Daniel and Daniel (1998) report findings with children enrolled in a head start program. A “guess who” game consisting of nine questions was asked of participants, and the options of names to guess included African American-sounding or White-sounding names. It was found that questions containing negative character traits were more often associated with African American names.

Ashburn-Nardo (2001) demonstrate through the use of an implicit association test (IAT) that favourable in-group evaluations are made by indivduals, even where the out-group is fictitious. In this study, the in-groups and out-groups were investigated and distinguished by ethnicity (see Key sources section below).

Dee (2004) shows that ethnic minority students test scores are lower where the teacher belongs to an ethnic majority, but does not explore or attempt to take into account other factors which might be at play.

Anderson-Clark (2008) present findings in which ethnic first names of student were significantly associated with a prediction of lower achievement scores and judgements of behaviour and characteristics (see Key sources section below).

Van Ewijk (2011) however presents evidence of no direct effect of ethnicity on assessment scoring, however did find evidence of indirect effect through teachers’ lower expectations of those with names associated with ethnic minorities (see Key sources section below).

Social class and status

Alvidrez and Weinstein (1999) found that children with higher socioeconomic status and those perceived as independent were judged more positively than their IQ scores predicted. Children with low socioeconomic status and perceived immaturity were judged more negatively than their IQ scores predicted. The researchers also found that the relationship between teacher ratings and grade point average was strongest for children whose ability was underestimated.


Seraydarian and Busse (1981) examined grades given to elementary school students on essays as a function of student names. The essays chosen were matched for gender neutrality and quality with results, suggesting that raters did not vary their grades on the gender basis of a name.

Mehrabian (2001) found that some personal names lead people to judge the name holder as less intelligent or less popular than is actually the case. Men’s names connoted more masculine characteristics, less ethical caring, and more successful characteristics than did women’s names.


In a range of studies, teachers were told at the beginning of the year that their students had certain IQ’s. These randomly allocated IQ-values affected the students’ school performances at the end of the year. This self-fulfilling prophecy of teachers’ expectations (the “Pygmalion effect”) seems especially strong for students from stigmatized groups and low-achieving students (eg. Jussim & Harber, 2005; Rosenthal & Jacobson, 1968).

From employment research

Bertrand and Mullainathan (2002) looked at names in the labour market by manipulating the perception of race on resumes. Results showed that White names elicited about 50% more callbacks than African American names. It also showed that higher quality resumes had no effect for African American applicants (but did for Whites).

From Social Psychology research more broadly

Garwood et al. (1980) conducted a much cited study which in which participants selected a beauty queen from several photographs which had been randomly assigned desirable and undesirable names. The study found an additive effect of the name on participants’ rating of attractiveness.

Banaji and Hardin (1996) demonstrated that people hold hidden biases of first names. They presented participants with a series of positive or negative adjectives, each paired with a characteristically White or Black name. As the name and word appeared together on a computer screen, the participant was asked to indicate whether the pairing was good or bad by pressing the space bar (a measure of reaction time). Results showed that most people, including African American participants, responded quicker when a positive word was paired with a White name and when a negative word was paired with a Black name.


Alvidrez, J. & Weinstein, R., 1999. Early teacher perceptions and later student academic achievement. Journal of educational psychology. Available at: [Accessed June 30, 2013].

Busse, T. & Seraydarian, L., 1977. Desirability of first names, ethnicity and parental education. Psychological Reports. Available at: [Accessed June 30, 2013].

Daniel, JE & Daniel, JL, 1998. Preschool children’s selection of race-related personal names. Journal of Black Studies. Available at: [Accessed June 30, 2013].

Garwood, S. & Cox, L., 1980. Beauty Is Only “Name” Deep: The Effect of First‐Name On Ratings of Physical Attraction. Journal of Applied …. Available at: [Accessed June 30, 2013].

Joubert, C., 1993. Personal names as a psychological variable. Psychological reports. Available at: [Accessed June 30, 2013].

Mehrabian, A., 2001. Characteristics attributed to individuals on the basis of their first names. Genetic, Social, and General Psychology  …. Available at: [Accessed June 30, 2013].

Seraydarian, L. & Busse, T., 1981. First-name stereotypes and essay grading. The Journal of Psychology. Available at: [Accessed June 30, 2013].

Willis, F., Willis, L. & Gier, J., 1982. Given names, social class, and professional achievement. Psychological reports. Available at: [Accessed June 30, 2013].

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