The Girl Hurricane Effect: Can the Wrong Name Cost Lives?

Jun 4th 2014

I've talked in the past about the effect of hurricanes on baby names. But what about the effect of baby names on hurricanes?

The question isn't as silly as it sounds. A study published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences concludes that storms given female names turn out deadlier on average than male-named hurricanes, presumably because they prompt different levels of preparedness. "Girl hurricanes" just don't sound as scary.

Not everyone is convinced by this finding (for analysis, see, e.g., CNN, LiveScience, NPR). Critics have pointed out that the effect wasn't found for hurricanes overall, only when the researchers drilled down to the small subset of highly damaging storms. Moreover, they included storms from the pre-1978 era when only girls' names were used. That could make a significant difference, because weather prediction has improved since then, reducing death tolls. And given the number of variables involved with storms, the idea that the name could move the needle simply strikes many as implausible.

In the study's defense, the researchers didn't even count the super-deadly female-named hurricanes Katrina and Audrey in their sample, because they would have skewed the results all on their own. The research team was also canny about names, going beyond just "male" and "female" to look more closely at the signals each name sends.

Accompanying lab studies that asked subjects to predict the severity of storms based on descriptions came up with a name-based threat ranking. While male-named hurricanes were judged more threatening overall, the #1 most serious-sounding storm name was Bertha, a name associated with great size and power since the Big Bertha artillery of WWI. The least-threatening storm name was Dolly, a sweet, down-home diminutive associated with country music and children's toys.

As for plausibility, the finding seems perfectly reasonable to me. Of course people respond to names. That's why we put so much care into the naming of everything, except hurricanes.

People take two kinds of messages from names: information and emotional impressions. The informative side is particularly explicit in the realm of product names. You might never have heard of the product Somnapure, for instance, but you won't be surprised to hear that it's a "natural sleep aid." Personal names, too, send a wealth of informative signals about an individual's sex, age, and cultural background. The name of a hurricane, in contrast, is pre-determined and uninformative.

An uninformative name, though, can still influence our impressions and behavior. A utilitarian 1970s brick apartment complex near me is called "Pheasant Ridge." That name tells you absolutely nothing about the place, as is apparent to anybody considering renting there. Customers can see the development's features, and the total irrelevance of pheasants, with their own two eyes. And yet...don't you think it would be harder to rent the exact same units under a name like "Brick Apartment Block C"?

How could giving a culturally loaded label to a phenomenon which tens of millions of people have to react to not produce any effect? Given the scale at which hurricanes operate, even a subtle shift in the response of a small percentage of people could have serious repurcussions. Frankly, calling a category 5 hurricane "Dolly" seems like a foolhardy underestimation of the power of names.

From a public-policy perspective, what's a better path? Identifying the names that sound scariest to the public could play to social and linguistic prejudices. (Imagine the derogatory effect if you ended up with a list of Arabic and Russian names.) Classic villain names could be effectively menacing, but they're a limited pool with repetitive sounds.

Using surnames instead of given names could take age and sex out of the equation. Non-human storm names, already used in some parts of the world, go even further, but introduce their own confounds. A Hurricane Vulture sounds scarier than a Hurricane Chickadee. Still, solving the naming dilemma now should be a lot easier than rescuing people who fail evacuate in the face of future gently named storms.

Comments

1
June 4, 2014 2:10 PM

So in looking up the names for 2014, mentally, I would totally be preparing for:
Bertha, Gonzalo, and Omar for the East Coast
and
Boris, Fausto, Yolanda, and (maybe) Norbert (due to the dragon in Harry Potter--but otherwise this seems a non-threatening name to me) for Pacific folks

The rest of them are just too *nice* and *soft* in my mind. I can't even imagine an Arthur being a terrible, nasty storm, let alone a Wilfred.

2
June 4, 2014 6:50 PM

Actually, the article that I just read said "The pattern held true even if they concentrated only on storms that hit after the naming convention changed." Sounds like they really took everything into consideration.

3
June 5, 2014 8:39 AM

This is really frightening. Just goes to show how important naming is! And marketing.

4
June 8, 2014 12:12 PM

Brilliant, Laura!

Hurricane Voldemort, anyone? 

5
By mk
June 11, 2014 3:00 PM

According to an article I read, they did also look only at storms that occurred after the change in naming, and compared them to the pre-name change results. Not doing so would have been a huge oversight. The most interesting to me was the fact that particpants listed male-named hurricanes as more threatening, since Katrina, Sandy and Irene are quite recent.

6
By hka
June 14, 2014 9:20 AM

I think Hurricane Bob was the least threatening hurricane name in recent memory, even though it's male.  I remember folks boarding up their windows on Martha's Vineyard, and spray painting messages to "Bob" on the plywood - things like "Hi Bob," and "Eat this Bob."  Prior to the hurricane there was a very festive air, and a few people didn't even bother to secure their boats saying things like, "I'll take my chances with Bob."  Bob didn't appreciate any of that party planning, and the island was a pretty glum place after he left.

7
July 20, 2014 10:00 PM

I am a Katrina and I have been wondering about how the name is doing since the storm. When I meet another Katrina, which is not too common, I say that we must stick together because things can change- one minute it's all Walking on Sunshine and the next it's people trapped in the Superdome. I don't think storms should be named after people for that reason- tainting a name is rather unfortunate. It also bothers me that people do not refer to it as "Hurricane Katrina" anymore- they just say, "Katrina ruined this" and I remind them that in fact, I did not. It has been a few years since that one but I somehow feel like people are taking hurricane preparedness in general more seriously as a result of that storm in particular, but it could be just an observation. Does anyone name a baby Katrina anymore, or have we begun to die out, destined to retreat in shame with the Adolphs of the world, never to be heard from again?