“As a foreigner in the U.S., since the first day I arrived,” says Xian Zhao, “I have been constantly asking myself this question: Should I adopt an Anglo name?”
Zhao, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Toronto, says that his cousin and his aunt changed their name from Pengyuan and Guiqing to Jason and Susan, respectively, upon moving to the U.S. Some of his grad-school peers made similar decisions, but after some deliberation while completing his Ph.D. in the U.S., he resolved to continue using his given first name, which means “significant” and “outstanding.” “Hearing people calling me Alex or Daniel doesn’t mean anything to me,” he told me.
The dilemma, though, inspired Zhao to study first names in an academic capacity, which he’s done with Monica Biernat, a psychology professor at the University of Kansas who was his Ph.D. advisor. Most recently, they looked at the relationship between someone’s first name and whether people would offer them help in “hypothetical life-and-death situations.”
In one experiment, Zhao and Biernat had participants—about 850 white American citizens recruited through Amazon’s Mechanical Turk platform, which researchers often use to pay subjects small sums in exchange for completing tasks—imagine the famous scenario of the “trolley problem,” in which an out-of-control train is about to run over five people on the tracks; pulling a lever to divert it would save them, but kill a helpless individual on another track. The identities of the five and the one were varied—for instance, the individual was referred to as either an Asian immigrant named Xian, an Asian immigrant named Mark, or a white male named Mark.