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We Could Raise an Extra 700 Million Dollars by Giving Hurricanes Better Names

Scattered throughout my book, Drunk Tank Pinkthere are a number of different factors that determine how successful fundraising is likely to be.  One of the key factors seems to be names.  We know that people are very attracted to their own names in general and so if you give them an array of letters – say it’s in the English alphabet – you look at the 26 letters of the alphabet.  If you ask a person to circle their six favorite letters, what you find is that they’re 40 percent more likely to circle the letters that happen to be in their name or in their initials. 

So, for me, as Adam Alter, I’m much more likely to circle A, and indeed I would. I don’t know why it is but I feel more positive about the letter A than about other letters.  And this is true across a whole lot of different languages with different alphabets.  People are generally attracted to their own initials.

What’s interesting about that is it also applies to some real world contexts that are quite important.  So after a hurricane comes through, if it’s a damaging hurricane there will be considerable attempts to raise funds.  So what you find is that people are much more likely to give to hurricane aid when the hurricane happens to share their initial.  So I would be more likely to give to a hurricane that began with the letter A.  After hurricane Katrina people who had K names were more likely to give.  After hurricane Mitch, the same would have been true of people with M names.  And that’s sort of interesting and curious.  It could be because it captures their attention better.  It could be because they feel an extra kinship with the people who’ve gone through pain.  It’s not clear exactly why that is but it’s a powerful effect.  

And it also suggests certain things about how we might raise funds by tweaking the names of hurricanes.  So if you look at the list of names in the population in the U.S., what you find is that some letters are overrepresented.  It just so happens that there are many Americans with J names or M names or A names.  And there aren’t many with X names or V names or O names or Q names.  Since the 1950s the National Weather Service has consulted a list each year and it cycles through a series of different lists.  And they go down alphabetically from A down and they have a list of 20 names and they just pick out each storm and they assign it a name.  

There’s nothing inherently wrong with that approach but what we can see is if people are going to give more to hurricanes that happen to share their initials. If we have enough storms we’ll have a hurricane Van if we get to V.  So instead of having a hurricane Van, since there aren’t that many Americans whose names begin with V, we should oversample names that happen to have M initials or J initials or A initials.  And, in fact, I did a quick calculation and what I found was that if you look at those names and if you use the right names across the last ten or 12 years of major hurricanes, we would have been able to attract an extra 700 million dollars in aid which is, I think, a remarkable effect given how inexpensive it is to change the names of hurricanes.  So just tweaking the name has this very remarkable and profound effect on how much we can attract in the world of donations.

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