Smart Hurricane Names: A Policy Intervention that Costs Almost Nothing but Should Attract Billions of Dollars in Aid

by Joshua Tucker on April 1, 2013 · 8 comments

in Other social science,Policy,Political Economy

The following guest post is from Adam Alter, an assistant professor of marketing and psychology at New York University’s Stern School of Business, and the author of Drunk Tank Pink: And Other Unexpected Forces That Shape How We Think, Feel, and Behave. This piece was adapted from an earlier post at Psychology Today.

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On September 8, 1900, a terrible storm made landfall in the city of Galveston, Texas.  The Galveston storm was five times deadlier than Hurricane Katrina, and in today’s dollars it’s still the second costliest hurricane in U.S. history.  But as the hurricane approached the Texas coast, no one was quite sure what to call it.  When it sailed southeast of Cuba, the U.S. Weather Bureau described it inelegantly as a “storm of moderate intensity (not a hurricane).”  It was impossible to link the storm to Galveston or any other place until it made landfall, because, like so many tropical storms, it zigged and zagged before making a beeline for Galveston.  In the aftermath, the storm acquired many names: the Hurricane of 1900; the 1900 Galveston Hurricane; the Great Galveston Hurricane; the Galveston Flood; the Great Storm; the 1900 Storm.

It took more than half a century, but in 1953 the World Meteorological Organization began naming storms before they made landfall.  As the Organization explained, “the use of short, distinctive given names…is quicker and less subject to error than the older more cumbersome latitude-longitude identification methods.”  Today, the world is divided into ten distinct hurricane regions, and each region names its hurricanes with locally familiar names.  In 2013, the first storm to hit the North Atlantic will be named Andrea, the first to hit the North Pacific will be named Ana, and the first to hit the Southwest Indian will be named Anais.  The second storm in each region will take a name that begins with the letter B, the third with the letter C, and so on (though the lists omit the letters Q, U, X, Y and Z).  These names are chosen arbitrarily, and the World Meteorological Organization prefers alphabetical lists only because they are more “efficient and organized” than randomly ordered lists.

Like many decisions that seem arbitrary at first, hurricane naming has unexpected practical consequences.  In the mid-1980s, Belgian psychologist Jozef Nuttin showed that people like their initials more than they like other letters in the alphabet.  For example, in one study Nuttin found that Europeans who spoke 12 different languages were 50% more likely to identify their own name letters among their top six favorite letters of the alphabet.

In a more recent twist on Nuttin’s basic result, psychologist Jesse Chandler and his colleagues found that people donate significantly more money to hurricanes that share their initials.  So Roberts, Ralphs and Roses donated on average 260% more to the Hurricane Rita relief fund than did people without R initials.  Also in 2005, people with K initials donated 150% more to the Katrina relief fund, and in 2004 people with I initials donated 100% more to the Ivan relief fund.

This information isn’t just idly interesting.  Since we know that people are more likely to donate to hurricanes that share their first initials, the World Meteorological Organization has the power to increase charitable giving just by changing the composition of its hurricane name lists.  In the United States, for example, more than 10% of all males have names that begin with the letter J—names like James and John (the two most common male names), Joseph and Jose, Jason, and Jeffrey.  Instead of beginning just one hurricane name with the letter J each year (in 2013, that name will be Jerry), the World Meteorological Organization could introduce several J names each year.  Similarly, more American female names begin with M than any other letter—most of them Marys, Marias, Margarets, Michelles, and Melissas—so the Organization could introduce several more M names to each list.

CAPTION: This figure illustrates the relative frequency of each first name initial in the U.S. population by linking the size of each letter to its frequency as an initial.  Ms, Js, As, and Rs are very common; Qs, Us, Xs, and Zs are obviously less common.

Of course some names are associated with wealthier people than others, so they might attract greater donations as well.  As I note in my new book, Drunk Tank Pink: And Other Unexpected Forces That Shape How We Think, Feel, and Behave (and as Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner discussed in their modern classic, Freakonomics), white males named Sander and Guillaume tend to be wealthier than white boys named Ricky and Bobby, and white girls named Alexandra and Rachel tend to be wealthier than white girls named Amber and Kayla.  Instead of just choosing hurricane names according to how many people share those initials, policymakers should consider choosing names that mirror the initials of the wealthiest members of the population.  (It’s certainly possible that the distribution of wealthy-name initials matches the distribution of all-name initials, but if they differ it might be wiser to adhere to the wealthiest names.)

We also know that people tend to pay more attention to their own names, so hurricanes with popular names rather than uncommon names are likely to attract far more attention from possible donors.  For example, the 2013 North Atlantic list features the name Joyce—the first name of approximately 6,000 American women—but it could just as easily feature the name Jennifer, which is shared by 1,500,000 American women.  The name Dorian (the first name of 9,000 American males) will also be on the 2013 North Atlantic list, but a Hurricane David (a name shared by more than 3,500,000 American males) would attract far more attention.  These are simple, inexpensive tweaks, but, since people donate upwards of 50% more when hurricanes share their first initials, they have the capacity to increase charitable giving by many millions of dollars over time.  (According to one simple back-of-the-napkin calculation, aid agencies might have attracted up to $700 million more since 2000 had they named the hurricanes using this “optimal” approach.)

This is just one simple illustration of how policymakers can capitalize on our psychological foibles to encourage beneficial outcomes.  I discuss how so-called cues, like our names, influence our thoughts and behaviors in Drunk Tank Pink, and propose a number of other policy solutions in the book that similarly address real world problems without costing policymakers or the government very much at all.  Understanding human psychology sometimes gives you the sort of leverage that you might achieve otherwise only with millions of dollars in inefficient brute force policies.

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