And no, I’m not about to go on a sexist rant and label myself a misogynist…quite the opposite in fact. Here is the conundrum – more people die in hurricanes with female names. There are a number of explanations for this:
God is a female and when she is mad – she is really mad. No comment.
The hurricane center names the stronger storms with a female name – except that the names are decided in advance of the hurricane season and they alternate between male and female names so it’s purely random.
But then how to explain this: “social psychologist Sharon Shavitt at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign analyzed the destruction caused by Atlantic hurricanes between 1950 and 2012. Even after eliminating storms like Katrina, which caused unusual amounts of damage, they find that hurricanes with female names cause more deaths than hurricanes with male names”. In fact, they extrapolate that if storms named after males had been female names, the average death toll would have risen from 15 to 45 – a 300% increase.
It turns out that the death toll difference has nothing to do with the name of the storm but rather how people react to the names. Male names sound a lot scarier to people and they start reacting and preparing much sooner – they take the warnings more seriously. Our inherent sexism biases actually are quite harmful and can and do literally kill us – go figure!! To prove that this was no random fluke, Shavitt actually ran some controlled experiments where she presented subjects with the hurricanes with different names but the same exact characteristics (e.g. category 4) and invariably the male named hurricanes were deemed to be more dangerous than the female ones. In fact, within the female named hurricanes there was a difference between more feminine names (Cindy vs. Bertha) where Bertha was deemed to be more destructive.
Before we jump to the obvious conclusions and name all hurricanes with a male name, keep in mind that people will lose all credibility when most of the hurricanes turn out to be not that destructive. The obvious lesson here is that names do matter and they drive social behavior and may actually have life and death consequences. This becomes critical when you are dealing with change management initiatives and trying to change behaviors. What you name your initiative and the language used to frame it has a large impact on how people react and more importantly behave. If you are looking to change people’s behavior, what you call your initiative and the language you use will actually determine how people react and the choices they make. Some would argue that those things have a more powerful impact than all the spreadsheets and analyses you put together.
There is a lot to be learnt from the social sciences in terms of how to shape and change behaviors inside our organizations. And what we call things and the language we use has a lot to do with it. That’s why we actually spend some time in working with clients around these issues – what are you naming your initiative, what is the language you are using to frame the discussion, what logo or mascot are you using to represent your initiative because we know that in subtle yet very powerful ways, these things actually do impact the outcomes. So stay safe out there and prepare yourself equally for all storms – not just the male named ones. Otherwise, it could kill ya!
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