Hurricanes with female names have a history of higher death tolls than hurricanes with male names, a new study published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests.
Researchers at the University of Illinois compared the death toll from every hurricane that made landfall in the US from 1950 to 2012, except Hurricanes Katrina and Audrey. The two hurricanes were excluded because they were stronger and more deadly than other storms.
More people died in hurricanes with more feminine sounding names, such as Dolly, Fay, or Hanna, than in hurricanes that carried masculine names, the study found.
“The problem is that a hurricane’s name has nothing to do with its severity,” Kiju Jung, a doctoral student at University of Illinois’s College of Business and lead author of the study, said in a public statement.
According to the researchers, the greater death tolls may have been because a storm with a more feminine sounding name sounds like it will be more benign, so people may be less likely to take the necessary precautions to protect themselves.
The researchers also predicted that changing a storm’s name from Charley to Eloise may have resulted in nearly three times the number of deaths.
In a follow-up set of experiments, the researchers tested that hypothesis.
More than 100 participants were randomly shown a map displaying a hurricane named either Alexander, Alexandra, or just, ‘Hurricane,’ while another set of participants were shown a map displaying a hurricane named either Christopher or Christina. All participants were asked to envision themselves in the path of the storm and to decide whether they intended to follow a voluntary evacuation order based on their perceived risk.
Participants who were assigned to Alexandra or Christina rated the storm to be less intense and less risky compared to those assigned to the male storm.
“People imagining a ‘female’ hurricane were not as willing to seek shelter,” Sharon Shavitt, a professor of marketing at University of Illinois and co-author of the study said in a public statement.
Shavitt added that the gender bias among many of the participants could be attributed to a positive portrayal of women.
“They may involve viewing women as warmer and less aggressive than men,” she said.
The naming of hurricanes is far more arbitrary than many people realize, however.
According to the National Hurricane Center, storm names are chosen by a list created years in advance by the World Meteorological Association. Since the 1970s, the names have alternated between male and female, regardless of the type or intensity of the storm. However, the researchers looked at data beginning in the 1950s, when all of the hurricanes had female names. This may have skewed their data.
Still, the findings of this study suggest that hurricanes should no longer have gender-based names, the researchers wrote. Instead, the researchers suggested using the formal numerical category system that more accurately describes the severity of a storm.