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Ivan No, or why you shouldn't name your kid after me: He might become a criminal

Our friends at LiveScience posted a story yesterday that makes me want to ransack their offices.

Now before you assume that’s the sort of thing that happens in the dog-eat-dog world of science journalism, take a look at the story. It reports on a study in the journal Social Science Quarterly that found that boys named Ivan were more likely than others to become juvenile delinquents.

I’m in good company: Alec, Ernest, Kareem, and Malcolm were also common on the perp walk. Gives a new meaning to “by any means necessary,” Malcolm X’s well-known phrase. And I’m not sure if Kareem Abdul-Jabbar would count,  seeing as his given name was Ferdinand Lewis.

Malcolm X—born Malcolm Little—does seem to have done some time in juvie, but I think that having your house burned down and your father and three of your uncles killed  might make you angrier than some of your pals by any other name. Abdul-Jabbar didn't have any run-ins with the law when he was a kid; he was hit with at least two misdemeanor charges as an adult, but they stemmed from possession of pot that the basketball champ said he used to try to control migraines.

I wasn’t a juvenile delinquent, and haven’t had any convictions outside of traffic violations as an adult. In fact, I was an active member of the Clarkstown Youth Court, where I meted out tough community service sentences to shoplifting teenagers.

So why would I be more likely to have become a delinquent? The study authors, two economists from Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania,  say in a release that "adolescents with unpopular names may be more prone to crime because they are treated differently by their peers, making it more difficult for them to form relationships. Juveniles with unpopular names may also act out because they consciously or unconsciously dislike their names."

I like my name. So that’s out. And if popularity is the deciding factor here, it would seem to depend on which names were the favorites when each of us was growing up. That has changed over the years, as my vandalism targets LiveScience wrote last year. Boys named Michael and David—on the top 10 list in 1950—were the least likely to become juvenile delinquents in the current study, which studied all the boys born in “a large state” from 1987 to 1991, with more than 15,000 names represented. (They will not disclose the actual data because of a confidentiality agreement.)

The authors do note in the study that “unpopular names are associated with juveniles who live in nontraditional households, such as female-headed households or households without two parents.” Sorry, my parents are still married. And “juvenile delinquents with unpopular names are more likely to reside in counties with lower socioeconomic status.” Sorry, Rockland County, N.Y., does not qualify as lower socioeconomic status, unless you’re comparing it to, say, Dubai.

I was about to call Steven Levitt, co-author of the bestseller Freakonomics, for his take on this, because I remembered he had a whole chapter on kids’ names in his book. But as I should’ve expected, he’s already weighed in on the matter on his New York Times Freakonomics blog.

Levitt had a few serious problems with the paper, mostly having to do with the way the authors calculate the risk of becoming a juvenile delinquent. “If I understand correctly what they are doing, if exactly one person has a particular name, the only way that the observation for that name will be included in their sample is if that person is a juvenile delinquent!” Levitt writes. “This leads to a powerful bias toward mistakenly concluding that people with uncommon names are more likely to be criminals.”

So, Mom and Dad, I can’t blame you for this one. And don't worry: I won’t be stealing anything from your house—not today, anyway.

Painting of Ivan The Terrible via Wikimedia

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