06/06/2014 10:47 am ET Updated Aug 05, 2014

Bad Weather and Sexism Lethal Combo

"What's in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet."
William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet

Bring social science and meteorology together and you get the perfect storm. Recent research shows that when it comes to weather, gender stereotypes can kill. Female hurricanes are far more deadly than their male counterparts.

Society's prejudices pervade all fields, including the supposedly unbiased realms of science. Historically, all hurricanes were given female names because of their unpredictability. In the late 1970's an attempt to end this subtle sexism resulted in the new practice of alternating male and female names.

This new policy unwittingly launched a natural experiment in the tenacity of gender-based expectations and how such views affect risk perception. Investigators reviewed fatalities caused by severe hurricanes in the United States. They found that those with feminine names were associated with dramatically higher death rates.

Their data demonstrate a Victor/Victoria phenomenon. Men are more violent than women. It makes sense to feel a greater need for protection from Victor than Victoria. While this instinctual radar may historically have served us well in our human interactions, it does poorly in assessing the need to prepare for a "male" or "female" hurricane.

This research suggests that people anticipate the severity of a hurricane based on the masculinity or femininity of its name. Hurricanes with more feminine names trigger less protective action and thus take more lives. Changing a severe hurricane's name from Charley to Eloise could nearly triple its death toll.

It is interesting to note that in all these investigations there was no correlation between the gender of the hurricane's name and the participant's sex who was judging its severity.

So, what's in a name?

More than we know.