Quick: Which of these storms sounds more dangerous? Hurricane Robert, or Hurricane Roberta?
Yes, it's a silly question: There is no correlation whatsoever between a hurricane's name and its size or ferocity. But new research suggests people feel less threatened by storms with feminine names, and are therefore less prepared when one turns life-threatening. Psychology sometimes trumps meteorology.
"Feminine-named hurricanes cause significantly more deaths than do masculine-named hurricanes," reports a research team led by Kiju Jung and Sharon Shavitt of the University of Illinois. That is apparently because such names "lead to lower perceived risk, and consequently less preparedness," they write in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
"Our findings," the researchers argue, "highlight the need to reexamine the practice of assigning arbitrary names to natural hazards."
"A hurricane with a relatively masculine name is estimated to cause 15.15 deaths, whereas a hurricane with a relatively feminine name is estimated to cause 41.84 deaths."
Jung, Shavitt, and their colleagues began by analyzing archival data on fatalities attributed to hurricanes in the United States between 1950 and 2012. (Before the late 1970s, all hurricanes were given feminine names; since then, they have alternately been assigned male and female ones.)
An independent group rated the names given to hurricanes on a one-to-11 scale—very masculine to very feminine. (Two particularly destructive storms bearing feminine names, 1957's Audrey and 2005's Katrina, were removed from the data set as outliers.)
The researchers then looked at each storm's intensity, resultant damage, and death toll. They found "no effect of masculinity-femininity of name for less-severe storms."
But among the more intense and destructive hurricanes, those with "feminine names were much deadlier than those with masculine names," they report.
"A hurricane with a relatively masculine name is estimated to cause 15.15 deaths, whereas a hurricane with a relatively feminine name is estimated to cause 41.84 deaths," they write. "Our model suggests that changing a severe hurricane's name from Charley to Eloise could nearly triple its death toll."
To find evidence this reflects people's discounting the danger of storms with feminine names, the researchers conducted six experiments. In the first of these, 346 University of Illinois students were presented with five male and five female names used for hurricanes during the 2014 season. Based on the name alone, they predicted each storm's intensity on a one-to-seven scale.
"Hurricanes with male names (Arthur, Cristobal, Omar, Kyle, and Marco) were predicted to be more intense than those with female names (Bertha, Dolly, Fay, Laura, and Hanna)," they report. This pattern held true for both male and female participants.
In another experiment, 142 people recruited online "were given a scenario and a weather map on which either Hurricane Christopher or Hurricane Christina was displayed." They then reported their likelihood to follow a voluntary evacuation order.
"Christopher elicited a greater intention to act than did Christina," the researchers report, noting that the male-named storm was "perceived to be riskier" than the one with the female name.
While admitting their research does not provide definitive proof of their thesis, it provides compelling evidence that storm names chosen at random can apparently motivate either high or low levels of preparedness. Humans respond to imminent threats, and "Betsy is fast approaching" does not register as much of one.
"These findings suggest the value of considering a new system for hurricane naming," the researchers conclude. They further suggest that the news media's common practice of referring to storms as "he" or "she" needs to be re-evaluated.
In addition, we might want to rethink our reflexive assumptions that males are strong and dangerous, while females are weak and passive. This research suggests that, under certain circumstances, such sexist assumptions literally can kill.