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Washington (AFP) June 02, 2014
Hurricanes with feminine names may kill three times as many victims because people do not perceive them as being as threatening as storms named after men, scientists said Monday.
Hurricanes are named by a pre-determined, alternating order that has nothing to do with the strength of the approaching storm. Scientists developed in the system in the 1970s to avoid the perception of gender bias.
However, the result has been deadly, according to a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences which spanned more than six decades of Atlantic hurricanes.
Researchers at the University of Illinois analyzed data on fatalities from every hurricane that made landfall in the United States from 1950-2012.
"A hurricane with a relatively masculine name is estimated to cause 15.15 deaths, whereas a hurricane with a relatively feminine name is estimated to cause 41.84 deaths," said the study.
"In other words, our model suggests that changing a severe hurricane's name from Charley to Eloise could nearly triple its death toll."
Scientists even disregarded two major storms in their analysis -- Hurricane Katrina (2005) and Hurricane Audrey (1957) -- because they took an outsized number of lives and could have skewed the results.
"In judging the intensity of a storm, people appear to be applying their beliefs about how men and women behave," said co-author Sharon Shavitt, a professor of marketing.
"This makes a female-named hurricane, especially one with a very feminine name such as Belle or Cindy, seem gentler and less violent."
Researchers also found that when they asked people to imagine being in the path of a hurricane named Alexandra, Christina or Victoria, they rated it as less risky and intense than imagined storms named Alexander, Christopher or Victor.
"This is a tremendously important finding," said Hazel Rose Markus, a professor in behavioral sciences at Stanford University, who was not involved in the study.
"Proof positive that our culturally grounded associations steer our steps."
Prior to the decision in the late 1970s to alternate male and female names, hurricanes were only given feminine names, a practice born out of the belief that storms, like women, were unpredictable.
Researchers said their study suggests that another change may be in order.
"For policymakers, these findings suggest the value of considering a new system for hurricane naming to reduce the influence of biases on hurricane risk assessments and to motivate optimal preparedness," the study concluded.
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