Like 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 colleaguesfound 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. (According to one simple back-of-the-napkin calculation, aid agencies might have attracted up to $700 million more since 2000 had they named the hurricanes using this “optimal” approach.)