Psychology: the stormy subject of hurricane naming

A US study concluding that hurricanes are more deadly if they are given female names has become one of the year’s most controversial scientific papers. The researchers also claim that the degree of femininity within girls’ names is linked to a storm’s death toll. It is not that female hurricanes are more ferocious, say the researchers at the University of Illinois, but that people do not take their threat so seriously.

The study, published last week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), one of the world’s leading journals, provoked a stormy reaction on the internet. It is indeed hard to believe the researchers’ conclusion that “changing a severe hurricane’s name from the masculine [girl’s name] Charley to the feminine Eloise could nearly triple its death toll”.

Academics also attacked the study’s methodology. Undaunted, the researchers issued a detailed riposte to “misunderstandings based on the statistical approach employed in this peer-reviewed paper and the nature of the dataset”.

The first part of the study analyses fatalities in all hurricanes that made landfall in the US between 1950, when official naming started, and 2012. Until 1978 only girls’ names were used. Since then, male and female names have alternated. The analysis shows no relationship between a hurricane’s severity and its name but a strong impact of name on death toll. The researchers went beyond categorising the names as either male or female. Volunteers, who did not know the purpose of the study, assessed the “degree of femininity” of each hurricane name. The results show that, even within girls’ names, those that sounded more feminine caused more fatalities. For example, the PNAS paper suggests that changing the name of a hurricane with given severity from Charley to Eloise could increase its expected death toll from 15 to 41.

The second part of the study involved a series of experiments with volunteers who were asked to imagine being in the path of hurricanes with different names. Participants (again, ignorant of the researchers’ hypothesis) were much more sanguine about their chances of riding out storms with more feminine names and less likely to comply with evacuation orders.

“In judging the intensity of a storm, people appear to be applying their beliefs about how men and women behave,” says Sharon Shavitt, a co-author. “This makes a female-named hurricane, especially one with a very feminine name such as Belle or Cindy, seem gentler and less violent.”

The PNAS paper concludes, more broadly, that “our findings highlight the need to re-examine the practice of assigning arbitrary names to natural hazards”. But in their follow-up statement the authors say: “We are not suggesting that [hurricane naming] policy should be changed based on one study.”

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