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Capitalizing on Flattery to Bolster Hurricane Relief Funds

Renaming hurricanes could boost aid without costing a cent.

As I write this post, Hurricane Emilia is sailing harmlessly across the eastern Pacific Ocean. Her elder cousin, Hurricane Daniel, was born a few days earlier, and he blazed a similar trail across the eastern Pacific. The practice of naming hurricanes began in the 1950s, because, as the World Meteorological Organization explains on its website, “the use of short, distinctive given names…is quicker and less subject to error than the older more cumbersome latitude-longitude identification methods.” 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. 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 so 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.

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.

This is just one simple illustration of how policymakers can capitalize on our psychological foibles to encourage beneficial outcomes. (Thaler and Sunstein's Nudge discusses many similar "nudges.") I discuss how so-called cues, like our names, influence our thoughts and behaviors in my forthcoming book, Drunk Tank Pink: And Other Unexpected Forces That Shape How We Think, Feel, and Behave, due for release in March 2013 with Penguin Press. For more information, see my Facebook page, and the book’s page on Amazon.