People Don't Even Respect Hurricanes with Female Names

If you live on the coast and heard that a hurricane was barreling towards you, would you take it more seriously if it were named Hurricane Douglas or Hurricane Dolly? A recent study suggests that people take storms with female names less seriously than those with male names, and die as a result.

Sharon Shavitt, a co-author of the paper and a professor of marketing at the University of Illinois, says that gender stereotypes may be to blame for the fact that hurricanes with more feminine names have a higher average death toll than those with masculine names:

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

Jason Samenow over at the Capital Weather Gang goes further:

"[Our] model suggests that changing a severe hurricane's name from Charley … to Eloise … could nearly triple its death toll," the study says.

Sharon Shavitt, study co-author and professor of marketing at the University of Illinois, says the results imply an "implicit sexism"; that is, we make decisions about storms based on the gender of their name without even knowing it.

"When under the radar, that's when it [the sexism] has the potential to influence our judgments," Shavitt said.

The researchers might not be too far off. A commenter's joke summed it up well in last week's post about the politics that goes into naming hurricanes: "Watch the f*** out for Hurricane Nana." Nana is slated to be the 14th tropical storm/hurricane name of this year's Atlantic hurricane season, and depending on the circumstances (and based on past examples), its name could serve to diminish people's expectations of the threat a potential Tropical Storm/Hurricane Nana may pose to land.

The study has one glaring flaw in that it analyzes almost all hurricanes between 1950 and 2009 with the exception of Hurricanes Katrina and Audrey, which had exceptionally large death tolls: all tropical storms and hurricanes between 1950 and 1979 received female names. It wasn't until the 1979 hurricane season that storms were given alternating male/female names, but the above-linked USA Today article notes that the researchers "accounted for this discrepancy in the study."

In an interview with Andrew Freedman over at Mashable, Columbia University professor Dr. Benjamin Orlove further explained why the study may not be too accurate.

"Even if one accepts their archival study, I still don't see how they can say that they think that the female-named storms are more deadly because people are underprepared," Orlove said.

Because we don't know how people responded to hurricanes by names in the past, Orlove questioned using present-day University of Illinois students for the purpose of this study. Are they good proxies for past residents of the coasts?

"They are better than no proxies, but they are far from ideal," Orlove said.

It's worth noting that hurricanes are officially gender neutral in that they are referred to as "it" rather than "he" or "she," yet nobody follows (or probably even knows about) that guideline.

[Image via NOAA]