Hurricanes with female names tend to cause more deaths than those with male names, and this discrepancy may to some extent stem from people's stereotypical gender expectations, a new study suggests.
In the study, researchers analyzed the death tolls from 94 U.S. hurricanes that occurred between 1950 and 2012, and found that hurricanes with feminine names resulted in more fatalities than hurricanes with masculine names. And, in a series of six experiments involving between 100 and 346 participants each, people predicted that female-named hurricanes would be less intense and risky than male-named hurricanes. As a result, researchers believe people may be less likely to follow voluntary evacuation orders for female-named hurricanes than for storms with masculine names.
"We observed that, when it was a male-named storm, people perceived it as less risky and they were less motivated to take action," study author Sharon Shavitt, a professor of marketing at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, told CBS News.
Interestingly, this was true of both men and women in the study. Both genders were equally biased in their assessments of the potential severity of male- versus female-named hurricanes.
In one of the experiments, the study authors asked the participants to predict the intensity of hurricanes with some of the official 2014 Atlantic Hurricane Season male and female names. In another experiment, the researchers asked the people to assess the risk posed by the following potential male- and female-named hurricanes: Hurricane Alexander and Alexandra, Christopher and Christina, Danny and Kate, and Victor and Victoria.
Whether a hurricane has a female or male name may affect how severe people think it will be and how well they prepare for it, the researchers said. They said gender-based stereotypes are the likely culprit, as men, and consequently, male names, are typically associated with risk and danger, while women and female names are more likely to be perceived as gentler.
So, would it be better if we gave all storms male names so that people would take the potential risk more seriously? "It is not as simple, as you don't want to scare people all the time," Shavitt said.
In the past, meteorologists always give hurricanes females names, as they associated those names with women's alleged unpredictability, the researchers wrote in the study. However, this naming system changed in the late 1970s, as people became increasingly aware of sexism, and meteorologists decided to alternate male and female hurricane names.
"The name has nothing to do with the severity of the storm," Shavitt said, adding that people should be aware of their own potential biases in how they may perceive the severity of storms, and they should remember to only judge hurricane intensity based on objective meteorological assessment.
"The name of the storm is really arbitrary," she added.
The study was published June 2 in the journal PNAS.