[Wherein our hero - having gone AWOL - is posting old thoughts that might still be relevant. They're interesting, at the very least.... one hopes]
As I’ve mentioned previously I’ve already attained a degree. I mention this because the body of this post represents the strangest assignment I’ve received in a full 6 years of tertiary education….
But first – I am overseas. This post represents the first easy place holder until I return to active duty. Secondly, a recent PhD candidate has offered to make a guest post next Wednesday. She’s looking at doing some involved work on Oxytocin for the next few years and is looking at how one can best manipulate trust in others. Keep your eyes open for that next week.
…and returning to today. I recieved this assignment in one of the best classes I have ever taken. The class was essentially an excercise in academic, critical and creative thinking. Classes consisted of introducing a topic (such as China’s one-child policy, Homosexuality, or Indigineous Relations) and critically discussing, hypothesizing and extending into the future. The assignment was of the same flavour. As best I can remember the brief was as follows:
Devise a novel topic with an implicit basis. A topic that is not readily identifiable, nor previously researched. Establish a premise, a mechanism, a methodology and invent the results. ‘Test’ these results from as many possible angles. Be comprehensive. Format, write and present the assignment however you feel most appropriate.
Thus, the follow is an assignment with fake data, an interesting premise (I hope), and a bogus conclusion. However, I do hope it stimulates a few tangential thoughts in those that read it.
Note: I wrote this in my second or third semester of Psychology. The language and methodology is far less sophisticated than I would employ if I wrote the assignment today. However, I do feel the premise sound and would be genuinely interested in research on this particular topic….
Give a dog a bad name, and hang him:
The hidden cost of your address
The first house I ever lived in was located on Hebe St. I don’t remember how old I was when I lived there and I don’t remember how old I was when I left there. I couldn’t tell you if it had a garden, if it had trees, what colour the paint was, or even if my bedroom had a window or not. I do, however, remember the name of the street. Hebe Street. Since then I have lived on Arinya Road, School Road, Cunningham Street, Fisher Street and on the corner of Campbell and Burns. I have different degrees of recall about each house – yet without even trying I can list each name. In fact, it turns out that memories of street names (particularly ones from childhood) cannot be accurately described by theories that predict continuous learning and gradual forgetting. It seems that if you can remember a street name for more than 5 years, it’ll be with you for at least the next 40. (Schmidt, Peeck, Paas, & van Breukelen, 2000). But why, and how seriously should we take these simple monikers? Do street names yield greater significance than just being a part of a person’s history? Cunningham Street, as a name, is pretty mundane. The only association I can make with this word is to the TV series Happy Days, but even that’s a stretch. But this is not always the way. Let’s just consider who names streets, and what this can mean. Sixty years ago, when the Nazi party gained political power and began their brutal ascent, they were quick to rename all streets reminiscent of the preceding governing body – The Weimar Republic – and renamed them according to Nazi ideals, figures and symbols. On May 7th and 8th of 1945 The Nazis officially surrendered. The First Provisional Berlin City Hall meeting was held on the 24th of the same month. What was discussed during the very first Post-Nazi meeting? The renaming of all streets that were pro-nazi or nazi-reminiscent (Azaryahu, 1997). Decades later, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, what did the ruling body do? Change the names of significant streets – the Marx-Engels-Pluto celebrated brutal communist figures but was quickly subdivided into two streets; one retained the name Marx and the other honoured Friedrich Hegel – a noted German Philosopher. In one fell swoop a street that had once celebrated the memory of the brutal communist regime was transformed into a celebration of German academia and high thinking.
Perhaps I’m taking this too seriously; after all, I’m interested to see if the names of streets affect the price paid for house and land. Cunningham Street does not motivate me to throw off the chains of oppression, nor does it inspire me towards any kind of racial hatred. However, I do have to pay rent; and the vacant lot next door was just sold to some developer. Did he pay less than he would of if he had bought it on neighbouring Queen Street – a name rife with connotations of opulence, power, prestige – and, to Brisbanites at least – economic viability? We know that living in particular suburb affects the price of house and land – even though two houses may be near identical – but does this happen on a micro-scale?
Let’s begin in the small town of Timaru, on the South Island of New Zealand. Here we find Muff Road. Muff Road is a quiet little street full of well meaning and wholesome families – yet strangely, the street is subject to a surprising amount of vandalism. Not least the repeated and predictable theft of the street signage. This has become such a problem that, according to The Mercury (http://www.themercury.com.au), that the denizens of Muff Road want the name changed in an effort to deter future vandalism. Vandalism and Graffiti are common crimes that can make people feel unsafe, reduce business patronage, encourage other kinds of crime and – according to the 2009 Gold Coast Graffiti policy (http://www.goldcoast.qld.gov.au) – lower property values. Muff Road is hardly an isolated incident, however. Closer to home, the Newcastle City Council (in 2008) was considering changing the name of ‘Hooker Street’ for the exact same reasons. While Muff Road may have been named after a local Mr. or Mrs. Muff (take that Nominative Determinism!), Hooker Street was most definitely named for its colourful past. (according to The Herald, (http://www.theherald.com.au)). As a side note – they intended to change it to John Hooker Road. Presumably such a tiny semantic difference is enough – the council believes – to deter young vandals. A pattern begins to emerge which colours street names, not as harmless and informative monikers, but as psychological waypoints. If Muff and Hooker can attract young vandals and criminals like moths to a flame; what might a street with a more prestigious or powerful name attract? What happens on all six Diamond Streets and four Diamond Roads in Australia; Or on all the Kings, Queens and President Lanes; Or on Lucky Street; Or even on Prestige Avenue, Rich Avon, or Success Street?
Our first process is simple. Let us find a number of street names we can associate with positive affect – any street directory contains a comprehensive listing. Let us identify the mean price of houses in that particular suburb, and test against the mean price of a house on Prestige Avenue (for example); and also compare against a couple of ‘control’ streets with mundane names – like Cunningham or Adsett. [Data can be collected from a number of online sources or from Real Estates Databases]. Given that we can see Muff Road and Hooker Street as the bottom end of a price spectrum (moderated, of course, by the overall value of the neighbourhood, facilities, access to business and infrastructure, and so on) we see an upward trend of prices on Success Street and Prestige Avenue. A simple independent t-test reveals a significant difference. However, not all houses are created equal. Let us look at the going price of vacant land at such addresses. How big is the difference above the local mean and against controls – that is, by what percentage is land worth more on success street than it is on others? We may collect data from a number of same and similarly named streets and run a regression. There we identify a significant difference in the amount paid for house and land on such streets. But one swallow does not a summer make – maybe Success Street and Prestige Avenue were so named because the houses and land were just worth more, maybe they were more developed or just had greater inherent potential – I bet we’d see the same effect demonstrated on all the Ocean View Roads around the country.
Let us take a name that is not initially associated with prestige or value. Let us take a name that, over time, has acquired a positive association, but began as something more neutral. A perfect example – in Sydney – is Oxford Street. A short stroll down Oxford reveals a number of popular cafes, nightclubs, and business; Oxford street is also a major CBD thoroughfare. For the purposes of our study, there are also a number of Oxford Streets located within Sydney and surrounding suburbs. Not surprisingly we find that Oxford Streets, wherever they are in Sydney, are consistently more highly valued (compared to other means and controls) than surrounding streets. We can apply the same process to lower end names. The most depraved location name is Sydney is probably Kings Cross. Unfortunately, there are no other streets that share this name. So for second best we look to Redfern. Redfern is poor, underdeveloped, close to the city centre, and has a large indigenous and migrant population. In addition to all this stands the fact that over 40% of people who live there do so in public housing. Redfern is a not a prestigious place – and so, unsurprisingly – there are only a few other Redfern streets in Sydney (excluding a street within the namesake’s suburb), and all are systematically devalued.
What’s happening here? How can a name have such an impact? There are number of possible explanations. We could make a strong argument that people are just becoming classically conditioned to certain words – In 2004 race riots in Redfern made the national headlines – they began when police (allegedly) caused the indirect death of a young aboriginal man. The subsequent riot lasted 24 hours and involved the destruction of cars and buildings, and cause personal injury to 40 police officers. That kind of reputation sticks. The name Oxford, on the other hand, has a number of connotations – Oxford as a popular Sydney Street; Historically as a popular English Street, it also shares reference with a University and a Dictionary – and Sydney-siders may learn to associate positive experiences with the name. But here’s the difference – Oxford Street is, and has been, popular for a long time; Redfern made the news once. It’s the difference between being caught in a light rain, and being struck by lightning. So is there something more to ‘positive’ names? Can we ascribe some other cause, such as the effects of mere exposure to such positive elicitations? We know usage of words with positive meanings way outstrips words with negative connotations (Zajonc, 2001), and we know that exposure to certain words increases positive affect towards them (Zajonc, 2001). Herein lies the key; Oxford is the sprinkle of rain – continuous, unobtrusive, subliminal and associates classically with positive affect. Redfern is the lightning – instant, explosive and aversive. Perhaps this is why we see over 20 Oxford streets in Sydney, and only 4 other Redferns.
There might also be something a bit more obvious going on. Maybe we’re just trying to cosy up to things that we aspire to. A primary instance of this is when young people move away from smaller country towns to whichever big city is closest. They might do this for the excitement, a job, for an education, to make money or just simply because a city can offer more opportunity and diversity. However, we do not see so many Brisbanites moving out to Toowoomba or Bowen, for example. So can we assume that all that positive association, all those desires and ambitions that tie into ‘Brisbane’ are reflected in the price of house and land in Brisbane Street, Toowoomba? Yes, we can. Brisbane Street (and Brisbane Place, Toowoomba) are nestled amongst a number of streets with equally positive names (Darling St, Manor St) and are near school and a police station (someone obviously thinks ‘Brisbane’ is a name worthy of the area, at least). Yet we still see, after accounting for all variability regarding access to facilities and other development measures, that Brisbane Street is more highly valued than surrounding streets. Conversely, Bowen St, Brisbane (there is no Toowoomba Street, Brisbane) is highly typical with regard to the average price paid for house and land.
So does salience play a role in all this? It seems perfectly reasonable to want to be Rich and Successful. It also seems perfectly reasonable to want to move from a small town to a bigger town. Both appear attainable, too. Though let’s face it, we don’t always get what we want – sometimes second best is the best we can hope for (and so we see more value placed on Brisbane Street and Success Road). Can we expand this concept to wider effects – will Melbourne Street, Brisbane and Sydney Street, Brisbane fetch more than would be expected? Conversely, might Brisbane Street, Melbourne not convey the same prestige? It turns out that Melbourne Street, Brisbane is more highly valued. However Melbourne City provides us with some very interesting findings. In the Suburb of Travancore, just outside North Melbourne, we find nestled together Sydney Street, Adelaide Street and Brisbane Street. Compared to surrounding controls (Fenton, Holberg, Middle and Vine Street) we find that Sydney Street and Adelaide Street are both significantly above the mean of controls, and above Brisbane Street (which is also above the mean). I can’t speak for the preference of Melbournites to move to Sydney or Adelaide – but I can say with certainty that Brisbane is further away than both other options. This suggests that salience does play a role – and that proximity may be the mechanism by which this occurs. This could be a down to a number of things – maybe Adelaide is more frequently mentioned than Brisbane, and so exposure is playing a role. Maybe Adelaide is more accessible to Melbournites, and so proximity and accessibility play a role; or maybe it’s classical conditioning– and the reputation of Brisbane is less valued than the reputation of Adelaide – and so, through association, Brisbane is less valued.
It’s relatively easy to see the mechanisms responsible for street names being associated with negative affect – crime and vandalism chief among them. It’s also a very easy to bring to mind an association between Redfern Street and the Redfern the Suburb – particularly if both locations are in the same city. It’s much more difficult to explain upward drives in price in places with more prestigious names. Classical Conditioning, Exposure and Salience all seem to play a role, so too does Proximity (Vienna is consistently rated as one of the most liveable cities in the world – but Vienna Street makes me think of Ice Cream). But there may exist some problems, particularly among streets located in City Centres, where each street is so variable that means may not be a very productive measure for value comparisons. Though, for suburban streets, this is not the case as the degree of homogeneity is higher. It is also difficult to rule out the fact that a street name (even a Brisbane or Diamond Street) has not been influenced by those that already live there or have invested interests (such as a street being named after someone or something directly or a street name being lobbied by residents and developers). Evidence might strengthen the position of classical learning as a mechanism if we were to look at names over time – such as the prices of Redfern Street before and after the riots (though Redfern was already a fairly negative word), or other streets before and after highly salient, highly influential events. A time-frame might also be established that recognizes the permanency of effects on such words and names. Another method may be to identify when a street has had its name changed from a neutral name to a name more positive or negative in connotation. Identifying pre- and post-change prices would allow one to control for all other variables (neighbourhood, amenities, etc) and provide a clear and causal link. This essay has not looked at, nor attempted to control for, the moderating effects of street suffix – It may turn out that any -Street is considered more prestigious than any -Road; or it may be that Boulevards trumps Lanes, which in turn trump Avenues. Future research may be required to determine the possible confounds of such suffixes. Finally, it is important to note that in most cases the effect sizes are relatively small. The price of house and land is often very high, and though the statistical analysis reveal that the differences are significant, they may not necessarily be obvious to the naked eye.
Anonymous. (2009, July 21). Muff Road Miffed. The Mercury. Retrieved October 15, 2009, from
Azaryahu, M. (1997). German Reunification and the Politics of Street Names: The Case of East Berlin. Political Geography, 16, (479-493)
Campbell, T. (2009, November 18). Hooker Street Residents Back New Name. The Herald. Retrieved October 15, 2009, from http://www.theherald.com.au/news/local/news/general/hooker‐street‐residents‐back‐newname/1362656.aspx
Gold Coast City Council. (2009). Graffiti. Council Policy. Retrieved October 15, 2009, from
Schmidt, H. G., Peeck, V. H., Paas, F., & Van Breukelen, G. J. P. (2000). Remembering the Street Names of One’s Childhood Neighbourhood: A Study of Very Long-Term Retention. Memory, 8, (37-49).
 Let us not ignore Little Schmuck Road – Indiana; Cannibal Road – California; and Shoot-Up Hill – Kilburn, England. Just try googling the entomology of English Grope or Grape Lanes – there’s one in most towns.
Azaryahu, M. (1997). German Reunification and the Politics of Street Names Political Geography DOI: 10.1016/S0962-6298(96)00053-4
Schmidt HG, Peeck VH, Paas F, & van Breukelen GJ (2000). Remembering the street names of one’s childhood neighbourhood: a study of very long-term retention. Memory (Hove, England), 8 (1), 37-49 PMID: 10820586