(USATODAY.com) - People are more afraid of a Hurricane Victor than a Hurricane Victoria, says a study out today from researchers at the University of Illinois.
"People may be dying as a result of the femininity of a hurricane (name)," says Sharon Shavitt, a professor of marketing at Illinois and a co-author of the study, which appears in the peer-reviewed journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Researchers examined more than 60 years of death tolls from the 94 hurricanes that hit the USA from 1950 to 2012 and found that hurricanes with a feminine name killed more people than those with male names. The scientists put the masculinity and femininity of some storm names on a rating scale.
LINK:2014 Hurricane Names
The paper claimed that a masculine-named storm would kill about 15 people, but a hurricane of the same strength with a female name would kill about 42.
One reason for the discrepancy, according to the authors: A storm with a feminine name is seen as less threatening than one with a more masculine name.
"In judging the intensity of a storm, people appear to be applying their beliefs about how men and women behave," Shavitt says. "This makes a female-named hurricane, especially one with a very feminine name such as Belle or Cindy, seem gentler and less violent."
"Individuals assess their vulnerability to hurricanes and take actions based not only on objective indicators of hurricane severity, but also on the gender of hurricanes," according to the study. "This pattern may emerge because individuals systematically underestimate their vulnerability to hurricanes with more feminine names, avoiding or delaying protective measures."
One researcher not involved in the study, Hugh Gladwin of Florida International University, found the report "very problematic and misleading." Jeff Lazo, director of the societal impacts program at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, Colo., says, "Any finding with respect to naming and fatalities could be a statistical fluke."
"A lot of factors influence decisions [about hurricanes], including socio-demographics, vulnerability, personal and family ability to respond, cultural aspects, prior experience (actual and perceived), quality and sources of information, time of day of landfall, etc.," he says.
"A huge number of additional factors affect the number of individuals injured or killed in any event," Lazo says. "Trying to suggest that a major factor in this is the gender name of the event with a very small sample of real events is a very big stretch. I certainly would not base policy decisions on this study alone."
The World Meteorological Organization, based in Geneva, chooses hurricane names several years in advance, so storms are not named based on their severity at the time.
From the early 1950s until the late 1970s, hurricanes received only female names. The alternating male-female naming system was adopted in the late 1970s because of sociey's increased awareness of sexism, the authors say.
"it's extremely unlikely that the death tolls are due to chance," Shavitt says.
Hurricanes Katrina (which killed at least 1,500 in 2005) and Audrey (more than 400 in 1957) were excluded from the study because they would have skewed the data.
The study focused only on hurricanes (not tropical storms) and only on hurricanes that hit the USA, not other countries. (This eliminated devastating Hurricane Mitch, which killed nearly 19,000 people when it hit Central America in 1998.)
Sandy, while not "officially" a hurricane at landfall, was included in the study. The storm, which killed 159 people as it lashed the Northeast in October 2012, had a name ranked as rather feminine by the study participants.
In follow-up experiments, the researchers analyzed how the gender of names affected people's judgments about storms. They found that people (such as undergraduate students at Illinois) who were asked to imagine being in the path of "Hurricane Alexandra" (or "Christina" or "Victoria") rated the storm as less risky and intense compared with those asked to imagine being in the path of "Hurricane Alexander" (or "Christopher" or "Victor").
"People imagining a 'female' hurricane were not as willing to seek shelter," Shavitt says.
Other scientists not involved in the research praised the study. Ryan Maue, a meteorologist and hurricane expert for WeatherBell, says "this is an interesting paper and opens up another can of worms. Meteorology needs more of this (higher quality) interdisciplinary work."
Rebecca Morrs, another NCAR scientist, says "it is an example of the important kind of work that needs to be done in this topic area.
"Social science and interdisciplinary research is critical to better understand how people respond to different types of hurricane risk information, so that we can use this knowledge to improve forecast and warning communication and reduce loss of life when a hurricane threatens," she added.