You may know that one of my interests over the past years has been to understand more about the influences on perceptions of risk and our behaviours as a result of those perceptions. I’ve written lots about this topic with my friend and colleague David Hillson (there are lots of practical resources in www.rara-risk.com) and I’ve tried to help numerous people in client organisations to devise practical ways to understand the things that are skewing perceptions during decision-making in risky and important situations.
You can imagine then that my interest has been well and truly captured by the recent research in the US that suggests that people’s perception of the risks to their safety and livelihood when faced with the potential of being affected by a hurricane that makes land is influenced by whether the hurricane has been given a feminine or masculine ‘name’. The research, published in a serious peer-reviewed journal, used a range of data-collection techniques and was able to show no relationship between a hurricane’s severity and its name, but a strong correlation between the hurricane’s given name and the number of people who die as a result of it. It seems for the population of Americans that took part in the research that the more feminine a name is perceived, the less it is perceived that a hurricane given that name could hurt you, therefore judgments about how to respond were less cautious and less effective in protecting life.
This makes perfect sense to me. I know that our perceptions are skewed by all sorts of things, and this example is just one more.
If we are to make sound decisions in risky and important situations, we need to get a whole lot better at challenging our gut-reactions of what to do for the best.
PS: I’m still processing my thoughts about the more worrying part of this research – that we might judge a person’s likelihood to be gentle rather than violent by their name. For another day…