Should We Name Hurricanes to Maximize Donations?


In 2008, psychologists Jesse Chandler, Tiffany M. Griffin, and Nicholas Sorensen published a study showing that people who shared an initial with a hurricane name were over-represented among hurricane relief donors. So, for instance, people with R-names donated significantly more than other people to Hurricane Rita relief efforts. (This is an offshoot of the name-letter effect.)

A few years later, marketing professor Adam Alter came up with an interesting idea: Why not use this knowledge to try to maximize donations to hurricane relief efforts? He explained:

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.

I think his idea is a good one overall. It wouldn’t cost much to implement, but could potentially benefit many hurricane victims.

I would go about choosing the names differently, though.

Repeating initials multiple times within a single hurricane season would be unwise, for instance. It would cause confusion, which would undermine the reason we started naming hurricanes in the first place (“for people easily to understand and remember” them, according to the WMO).

But optimizing the name lists using data on real-life usage? That would be smart.

I might even try optimizing based on demographics. Baby boomers are particularly generous donors, so maybe we should choose letters (or even names) with that generation in mind?

The baby boomers were born from the mid-1940s to the mid-1960s, so here are the top initials for babies born in 1956 (60 years ago):

Top first letters of baby names, 1956, U.S.

Here are two possible lists of hurricane names using the above letters. I stuck with the WMO’s conventions: 21 names total, alternating genders, and no retired names.

Mid-century styleModern style

And here’s another point: we wouldn’t want to assign these names in order. While the official hurricane season lasts a full six months — June to November — most hurricane activity happens in August, September and October:

Number of Tropical Cyclones per 100 Years (NOAA)

To really optimize, we’d want to reserve the top initials/names for the stronger mid-season hurricanes, which tend to do the most damage. So we could start the season using mid-list names, then jump to the top of the list when August comes around and go in order from that point forward (skipping over any mid-list names that had already been used).

What are your thoughts on assigning hurricane names with disaster relief in mind? Do you think it could work? What strategy/formula would you use to select relief-optimized hurricane names?

Sources: In the “I” of the storm: Shared initials increase disaster donations, Smart Hurricane Names: A Policy Intervention that Costs Almost Nothing but Should Attract Billions of Dollars in Aid, Tropical Cyclone Programme – WMO
Image: Tropical Cyclone Climatology – National Hurricane Center – NOAA

P.S. While J, D and R were the top initials 60 years ago, today’s top initials are A, J and M.

3 thoughts on “Should We Name Hurricanes to Maximize Donations?

  1. I think your approach is brilliant, Nancy! I had no idea there was a correlation between hurricane names and donations, but why not use it to bring aid to millions? The benefits seem to easily outweigh the disadvantages of a traditional alphabetical model.

    That said, would there be a way to standardize the letter scheme? That is, start with “mid-list” letters as you suggest, but try to set the letter order in advance such that “top-list” names are being chosen in August or peak season. Some variation of letter choice is good (you probably don’t want EVERY major hurricane to have a J name… people might get suspicious), but optimizing for the top 4-6 letters would probably have a noticeable effect. (Some variation would also help account for the generation changes, too.)

    Either way, fun idea! Can you make it happen?

  2. We could standardize/optimize the order by creating a sort of pyramid out of the top 10 names:

    1. 10th name
    2. 8th name
    3. 6th name
    4. 4th name
    5. 2nd name
    6. 1st name
    7. 3rd name
    8. 5th name
    9. 7th name
    10. 9th name
    (…and then the 11th name onward for the 11th hurricane onward.)

    That way the top 5 names would regularly be assigned to the 4th-8th hurricanes of the season.

    I would love to see if the WMO is game for something like this. I highly doubt it, but it’s worth a shot. I will email them over the weekend and let you know if I hear anything back. :)

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