On some mental representations of personal identity

Who would have thought that a simple misspelling of a person's name would cost me so much time. But it did happen and it was an entirely my fault. A friend whose name is pronounced by all and sundry Maia or Myra, spells her name (as a consequence of Welsh blood in her East Anglian veins) 'Mair' (the correct pronunciation of which is m-ay-rr, as I learned). Recently, on an occasion of no consequence to this story, I unthinkingly misspelled her name as Myra. I could simply berate myself for sloppiness and go on to do better next time. Hoping she won't find out or won't be too insulted if she does. But I like to use these occasions to learn something of interest so I first spilled the beans to Mair and tried to come up with some more general points. What struck me was how important a slip like that seemed to me (although it turned out Mair was much more relaxed about it than myself). Here are some questions that I tried to pose (and point in the direction in which something resembling an answer might lie).

  1. What is the role of a person's name to their personal identity? I.e. to what extent is their name a part of who they are? The answer here is obviously that a name plays a significant role. But it would be worth exploring the contexts in which its mental representation is triggered and how it is tied to somebody's sense of who they are in those contexts. There will undoubtedly be vast differences between individuals and also between cultures. But the process of naming seems to be universal, as does the importance of the name. Witness, the elaborate cultural norms around naming (of which the Western name / surname model is just one).
  2. What aspects of the name contribute to the identity? What are their mental representations? Spelling, pronunciation, form. Many people change the spelling of their name when they move to another country (sometimes for convenience sometimes to blend in). Many English speakers who move to a country where a language with complex morphology is spoken and are surprised/shocked or amused to discover their name in 'funny' forms - e.g. Woodyho (the Czech gentive of Woody). Apparently (and this is just hearsay), Kodak refused to have the form of the name changed in Czech promotional literature (with Kodak in Czech is 's Kodakem'). The  advisability or otherwise of this move (whether it happened or not) is a topic in its own right. On the other hand, it might seem inconceivable to an Italian, Russian or a Czech that there are many people in English speaking countries the pronunciation of whose name is not clearly defined. They can choose their own pronunciation or they can change it when they move out of a region where it is commonly recognized.
  3. What are the psychological (cognitive/affective) consequences of changing a name? Changing somebody's name (or a part of their name) to reflect an outside change - marriage, adulthood, heroism, birth of a child, change of clan - is a common and time honored tradition. However, what happens to the mental representations when such a change occurs. Does the person accept it as just a label or do they change  their behavior with their identity? (Presumably the latter in some cases such as changing a name to be accepted into a clan and the former in others such as having a name misspelled or mispronounced by foreigners.) What happens when somebody acquires a nickname? What are the consequences in prison or the army, when you're referred to by a number? Is it really dehumanizing or does it just mean that you have to code-switch depending on who you're speaking with. Are there any consequences to using multiple aliases? Could a person's attitude to their name be linked their other psychological characteristics? One clue might be the varied reactions of foreign language students to being assigned a new name in the classroom. Some welcome it (and even ask for it or find their own or adopt it) whereas others are very resistant to the idea - even hostile - and remain uncomfortable for the duration. Another way to go about finding out might be to ask people whose name was changed whether they started addressing themselves differently in their 'inner monologues' - or at least those who do that.

The social and ritual consequences of naming are fairly well documented (and presumably there is some research even on the issue of personal identity) but the question is how it fits into the overall fabric of our psyche and when is its mental representation activated. I suspect the answer will lie in the context for which it might be difficult to identify a unifying principle.

Another question to ask is regarding the other aspects of personal identity such as clothing-style, hair-style, make up, skin color, body shape.  All of these play a role in the social context (as has been well researched) but the nature of their mental representation seems to receive much less attention (but it is quite possible that I'm simply unaware of the research, or that it is scattered across disciplines).

As an additional consideration names for groups from nations, tribes to towns or interest groups are also a part of people's identity (at least by proxy). Here's an interesting news item on the renaming of a town in Idaho to SecretSanta.com.