A study published Monday suggests Americans are less afraid of hurricanes with female names.
This is a real study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences — not The Onion.
Researchers at the University of Illinois and Arizona State looked at deaths caused by hurricanes between 1950 — when storms were first named — and 2012.
Even after tossing out Katrina and Audrey, particularly deadly storms that would have skewed their model, they found that hurricanes with female names caused an average of 45 deaths, compared with 23 deaths from storms with male names.
In order to back up their findings, the scientists surveyed hundreds of individuals and found that, even on paper, they were less fearful of storms they thought would hit like a girl.
“People imagining a ‘female’ hurricane were not as willing to seek shelter,” said study co-author Sharon Shavitt in a statement. “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.”
Hurricanes were traditionally given women’s names, but the National Hurricane Center began the practice of alternating male and female monikers in 1979.
The study suggests that changing a hurricane’s name from Charley to Eloise “could nearly triple its death toll.”
Not everyone is buying it. No two storms are alike, and there could be plenty of other factors that determine how people respond to them.
Hugh Gladwin, an anthropologist at Florida International University, told USA Today the results are “very problematic and misleading.”
But Laura Wattenberg, the creator of the popular naming site BabyNameWizard.com, notes that names do have subtle psychological effects on behavior.
“With a hurricane, you can have 40 million people affected by the same name at the same time,” Wattenberg says. “Even a tiny difference that’s spurred by the reaction to a name could end up having an effect.”
Although a great deal of care is devoted to choosing names for practically everything that has one — babies, consumer products, movies — nothing is as randomly named as a hurricane. Names are selected months and years in advance and then assigned in alphabetical order. There’s no telling which named storm will prove to be a real menace.
Wattenberg suggests choosing names that really pack a punch, “names of villains or markers of fear and evil to get people to act.
“Perhaps our public policy is that we should be naming all the hurricanes Voldemort,” she says.