Hurricanes with female names more deadly than male-named storms, study finds

Jun 02, 2014
An analysis of more than six decades of death rates from US hurricanes by a team of University of Illinois researchers shows that severe hurricanes with a more feminine name result in a greater death toll. From left, Kiju Jung, a doctoral student in marketing in the U. of I.'s College of Business and the lead author on the study; Madhu Viswanathan, a professor of marketing; and Sharon Shavitt, a professor of marketing at Illinois. Credit: L. Brian Stauffer

In the coming Atlantic hurricane season, watch out for hurricanes with benign-sounding names like Dolly, Fay or Hanna. According to a new article from a team of researchers at the University of Illinois, hurricanes with feminine names are likely to cause significantly more deaths than hurricanes with masculine names, apparently because storms with feminine names are perceived as less threatening.

An analysis of more than six decades of death rates from U.S. hurricanes shows that severe hurricanes with a more feminine name result in a greater death toll, simply because a storm with a feminine name is seen as less foreboding than one with a more masculine name. As a result, people in the path of these may take fewer protective measures, leaving them more vulnerable to harm.

The finding indicates an unfortunate and unintended consequence of the gendered naming of hurricanes, which has important implications for policymakers, meteorologists, the news media and the public regarding communication and preparedness, the researchers say.

"The problem is that a hurricane's name has nothing to do with its severity," said Kiju Jung, a doctoral student in marketing in the U. of I.'s College of Business and the lead author on the study.

"Names are assigned arbitrarily, based on a predetermined list of alternating male and female names," he said. "If people in the path of a severe storm are judging the risk based on the storm's name, then this is potentially very dangerous." The research, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, examined actual hurricane fatalities for all storms that made landfall in the U.S. from 1950-2012, excluding Hurricane Katrina (2005) and Hurricane Audrey (1957) because they were much deadlier than the typical storm.

The authors found that for highly damaging storms, the more feminine the storm's name, the more people it killed. The team's analysis suggests that changing a severe hurricane's name from the masculine "Charley" to the feminine "Eloise" could nearly triple its .

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

In a follow-up set of experiments, Jung and his colleagues examined how the gender of names directly affected people's judgments about storms. They found that people who were asked to imagine being in the path of "Hurricane Alexandra" (or "Christina" or "Victoria") rated the storm as less risky and intense compared to those asked to imagine being in the path of "Hurricane Alexander" (or "Christopher" or "Victor").

"This is a tremendously important finding. Proof positive that our culturally grounded associations steer our steps," said Hazel Rose Markus, a professor in behavioral sciences at Stanford University, who was not involved in the research. Hurricanes in the U.S. formerly were given only female names, a practice that meteorologists of a different era considered appropriate given the unpredictable nature of the storms. According to the paper, an alternating male-female naming system was adopted in the late 1970s because of increased societal awareness of sexism.

(The names of this year's storms, alternating between male and female names, will start with Arthur, Bertha, Cristobal and Dolly.) Even though the "gender" of hurricanes is pre-assigned and arbitrary, the question remains: Do people judge hurricane risks in the context of gender-based expectations?

"People imagining a 'female' hurricane were not as willing to seek shelter," Shavitt said. "The stereotypes that underlie these judgments are subtle and not necessarily hostile toward women – they may involve viewing women as warmer and less aggressive than men."

"Such gender biases are pervasive and implicit," said Madhu Viswanathan, a professor of marketing at Illinois and a co-author of the study. "We found that people were affected by the gender of hurricane names regardless of whether they explicitly endorsed the idea that women and men have different traits. This appears to be a widespread phenomenon."

Hurricanes kill more than 200 people in the U.S. each year, and severe hurricanes are capable of producing casualties in the thousands, according to the paper. Even with climate change increasing the frequency and severity of storms, remains a challenge for officials.

Although the negative effect of gender stereotypes is well-known in hiring decisions and other evaluations of women and men, this research is the first to demonstrate that gender stereotypes can have deadly consequences.

Explore further: Be prepared for hurricanes, despite calm forecast, NOAA warns

More information: "Female hurricanes are deadlier than male hurricanes," by Kiju Jung, Sharon Shavitt, Madhu Viswanathan, and Joseph Hilbe. PNAS, www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1402786111

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User comments : 12

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Returners
2.5 / 5 (2) Jun 02, 2014
Interesting psychological feedback problem i guess.

Maybe instead of naming them after people, they should name them after religious or mythical evil entities:

Azazel
Baal
Chemosh
Dagon
Evil (don't know yet)
Fafnir
Gorgon
Hydra
I

I don't know, but these would mostly be gender neutral and put "fear" as the base psychology associated with the name, instead of "Katrina" (purity, or to purge).

You know, if the psychology of the name influences behavior, why the hell are we naming storms "anna" and "wilma" and "barbie" or whatever?
Dr_toad
Jun 02, 2014
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
Returners
2.3 / 5 (3) Jun 02, 2014
Why is this "study" given any importance at all? This crap is a waste of time and bandwidth.


No, it is not.

This is a life and death matter.

If 3 times as many people are dying from female named storms than male named ones, then it means the naming convention alone is causing about half the deaths from Hurricanes due to unintended psychological backlash from a female name.

Heck, for the U.S. this ought to be a top priority to figure out the psychology of this problem and fix it.
ab3a
3 / 5 (2) Jun 02, 2014
HOGWASH! First, how long has it been since we started naming storms with male names? It's been less than 60 years, I know that much. So we have a skew right there. Second, whether storms with feminine names have been more deadly is a statistical artifact. It does not imply anything. Anyone remember Hurricane Hugo? Andrew? David?

This is nonsense. It is stupid. It is a pointless study of nothing more than what happens to be a weather geek's name assignment.
antonima
not rated yet Jun 02, 2014
Survival of the fittest!
Or, at least, survival of the least sexist??
Bob Osaka
5 / 5 (1) Jun 02, 2014
Numbered storms seem more sensible. The "third" one or the "sixteenth" one of the season statistically causes the most damage/ loss of life. That might be helpful.
There are no proposed naming schemes which will incite residents to exercise more caution.
"Punisher," "Death-dealer," "Terminator," or "Zombie apocalypse." if I heard these bearing down on my town, I'd probably flee. However if "Hello Kitty," "Huggy Bear," or "Big Bird" were coming, I'd probably stay.
It's a valid point. Who hasn't been lulled by confidence in a woman? It is a deep-rooted psychosis or weren't you breastfed?
PhotonX
not rated yet Jun 03, 2014
HOGWASH! First, how long has it been since we started naming storms with male names? It's been less than 60 years, I know that much. So we have a skew right there.
Since 1979, so 35 years. How do you figure that is a skew? Analysis wouldn't have started until then.
.
Second, whether storms with feminine names have been more deadly is a statistical artifact. It does not imply anything.
It implies that we have discovered another way people can behave stupidly, and so indicates an area where public education is necessary.

Returners
not rated yet Jun 03, 2014
HOGWASH! First, how long has it been since we started naming storms with male names? It's been less than 60 years, I know that much. So we have a skew right there. Second, whether storms with feminine names have been more deadly is a statistical artifact. It does not imply anything. Anyone remember Hurricane Hugo? Andrew? David?

This is nonsense. It is stupid. It is a pointless study of nothing more than what happens to be a weather geek's name assignment.


1, they only used storms since the modern naming convention.
2, It would only take about 2 decades worth of data in order to have a sufficient sample size for the Atlantic basin for comparison, and they have 4 decades worth. So the sample size is twice as big as it needs to be in order to be statistically valid.

3, There's no known, logical reason nature itself should express a bias to favor female names being more deadly, thus the problem must be caused by human psychology/perception.
Returners
not rated yet Jun 03, 2014
HOGWASH! First, how long has it been since we started naming storms with male names? It's been less than 60 years, I know that much. So we have a skew right there. Second, whether storms with feminine names have been more deadly is a statistical artifact. It does not imply anything. Anyone remember Hurricane Hugo? Andrew? David?

This is nonsense. It is stupid. It is a pointless study of nothing more than what happens to be a weather geek's name assignment.


1, they only used storms since the modern naming convention.
2, It would only take about 2 decades worth of data in order to have a sufficient sample size for the Atlantic basin for comparison, and they have 4 decades worth. So the sample size is twice as big as it needs to be in order to be statistically valid.

3, There's no known, logical reason nature itself should express a bias to favor female names being more deadly, thus the problem must be caused by human psychology/perception.
Returners
not rated yet Jun 03, 2014
whether storms with feminine names have been more deadly is a statistical artifact.


Suggest you search Cliff Notes online for "Introduction to Statistics" and do a little reading. In a sample size of about 200 or so each for male and female, which is what we'd have for the Atlantic basin, a comparison test can tell the difference between random chance and an actual pattern. Even a Chi Square test can tell the difference.

A 3 to 1 difference in average is itself insane, and over a sample size so large, the probability of such a large discrepancy happening by chance would be absurdly low (I'd need to see the exact data set to calculate it), but this would be akin to flipping a count 400 times, calling male or female randomly on 200 coins each, and then consistently getting heads 3 tiems as often on the "female" coins.

It's stupidly improbable to happen by chance.
antigoracle
5 / 5 (1) Jun 03, 2014
It's gotta be the hot flashes.... yep... hot flashes.
ab3a
2 / 5 (1) Jun 03, 2014
Storm names are assigned before the storm season begins. So the fact that the "most deadly" storms happen to have female names is a matter of random chance.

Saying that one is more likely to expire due to storms because it is named Debra instead of Donald is nothing less than absurd.
Caliban
5 / 5 (1) Jun 03, 2014
"Hell hath no Fury like a female-named storm"?

It's just too, too ironical.

The implications of this non-random correlation are truly staggering.