Did you unwittingly name your baby after a hurricane?

Hey, it happens. Human choices aren’t always rational.

Hurricanes. They destroy homes and take lives. They cost billions of dollars in damage. And they force our hands in the assigning of names to our offspring. Wait, what was that last part?

Yes, according to a recently published study in Psychological Science, hurricanes names can boost the popularity of corresponding baby names. Well, sort of. It’s complicated.

The study – which additionally examined overall changes in frequency of baby names in the United States during the past century – didn’t just looks at hurricane names, it also considered names with shared units of sound, or phonemes. Because, as it turns out, names with shared phonemes affect each other’s popularity. If the name Jacob is having a good year, for instance, this may bode well for names like Jason and James in upcoming years, and vice versa. The more phonemes two names have in common, the more their usage rises and falls in unison.*

Image: ariel design.

Fine, fine. Sometimes J names are popular and other times it’s K names or D names or whatever. But what does this have to do with hurricanes? Well, the authors of the study attribute the correlation in popularity of sound-alike names to a psychological phenomenon called the mere-exposure effect. Perhaps you’ve heard of it? It’s one of a long list of cognitive biases that cause our species to think and do things that aren’t especially logical. The mere-exposure effect is the tendency for people to look more favorably on the familiar. Simply being exposed enough times to a sound or word or image renders it more likable. (As you can imagine, this is the basis for plenty of advertising campaigns.) So a predominance of names with a particular phoneme makes that phoneme more common, which makes it sound more pleasing, which makes us more likely to select names containing that phoneme when tasked with the naming a of child. For the most part, this just means that sound-alike names increase in popularity together until we hear them so much that they become tedious and we turn our attention to some less overused phoneme.

But hurricanes are also given human names, which come from a rotating set of lists maintained by the World Meteorological Organization (six lists in all for Atlantic tropical storms). If a hurricane is destructive enough to spend weeks or months in the news, we’re bombarded not just by its wind gusts and rain but also by its phonemes. These sounds become familiar, even pleasing. See where this is going?

By sifting through the use frequency of thousands of baby names and about sixty years of storm data, researchers found that in years following prominent (i.e., costly) hurricanes, while use of the specific name of the hurricane might take a dive due to negative associations (Katrina dropped over a hundred spots on the top 1000 list after its stormy namesake ravaged the southeastern U.S.) phonemically similar names experience a boost in popularity. The study reported a 9% increase in the frequency of names beginning with a K bestowed upon babies following Hurricane Katrina.

Of course, weather isn’t the only factor impacting name choice. Celebrities, movies, pop songs and other assorted media can also contribute to the fashionability of certain names. But those variables will have to wait their turn for some future investigation.

It might interest you to know that the authors of the study do not operate out of their university’s psychology department, but rather its business school. Their goal is to uncover patterns that predict the path of cultural evolution, which could in turn predict which products will succeed and which will fail. They don’t really care what you name your baby, they’re more interested in how the popularity of the iPad will affect iPhone, or possibly the number of people dining at IHOP. Business stuff. Baby names just make a good experimental model for examining how trends change, because – unlike products that can be more or less well designed and promoted – names are theoretically neutral in value. Whatever your personal tastes may be, there’s nothing inherently superior about the names Isabella and Jayden (the 2011 chart toppers for New York City’s fashion forward babies), and no company earns royalties if a particular name dominates birth certificates.

But that shouldn’t stop you from having a philosophical crisis and questioning the existence of free will. If hurricanes are naming our children, what other “decisions” might be swayed by forces beyond our control? And don’t forget that this stormy manipulation of monikers affects more than just babies. Our pets, boats, and fictional characters need names too. Perhaps it’s best not to leave these important decisions to our faulty, cognitively biased human brains. Naming is clearly a job for computers. Which is why, should I someday decide to adopt a cat or dog, I will be christening it using this random name generator I found on the internet. It lets you set the level of obscurity, and even gives you last names. “Here, Marcellus Macvicar, dinnertime!”

* The effect was much stronger in the first phonemes of names than subsequent ones. Which means that the popularity of “Jason” may affect that of “Jacob”, but it won’t do much for “Allison”.

If you want to play along at home, here’s the U.S. Social Security database that I’m using.

By the way, as more and more people finish their copy of Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow, you should brace yourself for a continuing deluge of articles explaining how thoroughly irrational we all are.

Alex Reshanov