Human psychology can be downright embarrassing sometimes. Our sponge-like brains soak up all kinds of silly cultural tropes, the outcomes of which can range from weird-but-innocuous to legitimately dangerous. And when it comes to our reactions to storm names, the results of our gender biases can be straight-up deadly.
It’s All in the Name
The down-low: University of Illinois researchers have found that we humans just don’t take hurricanes as seriously if they have a feminine name.
Let’s clarify here: storms are named arbitrarily. Let me say that again: there is no correlation between a name and the seriousness of a storm. The National Hurricane Center simply rotates through alphabetical lists of names every year. So drawing conclusions that Hurricane Belle must be sweet as pie, and Hurricane Arthur has a serious axe to grind? Utterly irrational.
But hey, often times we don’t let rationality get in our way. Deep-seated assumptions that women are genteel/pansies, and men are gruff/aggressive, translates to our unconscious ideas about a storm’s likeliness to do harm. The (ironic) result: hurricanes with feminine names are more likely to kill significantly more people than hurricanes that sound macho.
You see, people take fewer precautions and are less likely to seek shelter in the face of metaphorically X-chromosome storms—leaving them more vulnerable when the (newsflash!) gender-less storm hits.
Let’s Break This Down
Researchers looked at death tolls for every hurricane in the U.S. between 1950 and 2012 to arrive at their rather depressing conclusions (and they even exempted 1957’s Audrey and 2005’s notorious Katrina as catastrophic outliers). They also used participants to rate the perceived femininity or masculinity of names without knowledge the results would be compared to storm-name outcomes. And the alignment between the two data sets was dead-on (no pun intended).
Moreover, when researchers later directly asked research participants to assign levels of visceral angst to storms of various names, they rated Alexandra, Christina and Victoria as less risky than Alexander, Christopher or Victor. The researchers’ analysis even suggests that changing a storm’s name from Charley to Eloise could almost triple the number of fatalities. Damn, we humans are dumb.
What to Do?
The names set up for the first few hurricanes of the 2014 season are Arthur, Bertha, Cristobal and Dolly. But given the likelihood of increased deaths from Bertha and (probably especially) Dolly—a name which has come to literally caricature the female form—maybe the powers that be should switch to more gender-neutral names. Morgan, Taylor, Casey? Or maybe use foreign names, with which Americans have no clear gender associations: Chang, Dinesh, Abasi.
‘Mericans might not like the outsider names, but at this point, it’s a matter of saving ourselves from ourselves.