Name game: Some names are deadlier than others

Female-named hurricanes cause “significantly more deaths”

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Researchers analyzed over six decades of death rates from U.S. hurricanes and concluded that a severe hurricane with a female name is likely to have a death toll triple that of an equally severe hurricane with a male name.

Say, what?

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No, it’s not gender bias … it’s a cognitive bias induced by “Incidental stimuli”.

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The study

The researchers studied whether female-named hurricanes are deadlier from a couple of different angles.

First, they analyzed death rates from severe U.S. hurricanes from 1950 to 2012 … adjusting for the facts that all hurricanes had female names until 1979 — meaning the study included 29 years without male hurricane names – and that hurricanes have generally gotten less deadly over time.

They also conducted 2 supplementary experiments.

In one experiment, participants predicted the intensity of 10 hurricanes — five with female names and five with male names. The male hurricanes were expected to be more intense — regardless of the gender of the participant.

In a 2nd experiment, participants were asked to judge the risks of a hypothetical “Hurricane Alexander” and a “Hurricane Alexandra.”

Despite being told both had uncertain intensity, most respondents considered Hurricane Alexander to be riskier.

A 3rd experiment tested whether participants would be more likely to evacuate due to a “Hurricane Christopher” vs. a “Hurricane Christina.”

More people said that they would flee their homes if Hurricane Christopher came barreling toward them compared to an impending Hurricane Christina.

Hmmm.

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What’s going on?

It’s not the severity of the hurricanes per se … female names don’t cause more severe storms.

Rather, it’s the way that people respond to subtle naming cues.

The study suggests that people prepare differently for hurricanes depending on whether the storm has a male or female name.

“Feminine-named hurricanes (vs. masculine-named hurricanes) cause significantly more deaths, apparently because they lead to a lower perceived risk and consequently less preparedness.”

In other words, call a hurricane “Spike” and folks head for the horizon; call it “Daisy” and they shelter-in-place … trying to ride out a potentially deadly storm.

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Incidental Stimuli Bias

Psychologists have long reported that we’re all susceptible to “cognitive biases” — all kinds of unwanted (and usually unnoticed) influences on our judgments and behavior … think: stereotypes, halo effect, confirmation bias.

Incidental stimuli can drift into the cognitive stream and affect what we think and what we do, including even stimuli that are completely unrelated to the cognitive task at hand.

Words, sights, sounds, feelings, and even smells can influence our understanding of objects and direct our behavior toward them.” Source

For example, researchers have reported that voters are more favorable to school bond levies when the polling place in a school and more favorable to abortion restrictions when the polling place is a church.

Since the polling venues shouldn’t matter, they’re called incidental stimuli.

For hurricanes, the name gender is an incidental stimulus.

A barreling hurricane’s name shouldn’t shape people’s reaction to it … but it does.

It’s an example of incidental stimulus bias … and, it can be deadly.

Next time you hear Hurricane Daisy is coming, run for the hills.

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