July 23, 2008

Not looking forward to Hurricane Georgina

An interesting piece of research was just published in the Journal, Judgement and Decision Making. The authors, Jesse Chandler, Tiffany Griffin and Nicholas Sorenson of the University of Michigan came to some rather startling conclusions. Having analysed the register of Red Cross donations in a county in the midwest United States, they found that there was an increased incidence of donations if the person concerned shared an initial with the name of the disaster. Donations from people whose names began with the letter 'K' jumped 31% after Hurricane Katrina, similarly after Hurricane Mitch, donations from people whose names began with M jumped 30%. This is interesting. The researchers are unable, being good scientists to suggest why this might be so- but according to them it harmonises with many other studies done for example on the way that individuals look at historical characters- apparantly studies have found that those whose names begin with R tend to look favourably on Rasputin!

It is interesting- if not just statistical noise and researchers insist that it isn't because it exposes the irrational roots of human behaviour. Lets take an example, I decide to donate to a hurricane- Hurricane Georgina, whose impact was disastrous within the United Kingdom this year. I might think that my donation proceeded from a rational calculation- to relieve suffering- and that my choice of disaster was informed by the fact that those people were people who deserved caring for. But actually that is not the whole story. My bias towards the letter- which Georgina shares with Gracchi- may have influenced my decision- I unlike Matt Sinclair might not have been predisposed to donate to Hurricane Martha. Lots of human decisions are like this- and not all of them involve letters- but one of the interesting things I think about the current state of play in cognitive science is how much more we are learning about the irrational roots of human behaviour. Letters, numbers- we enthuse them all with character- and use them as signs. I don't think anyone quite understands why we do this- but we do- there are names as everyone I am sure recognises in their own life that just sound nice and names which do not. I am well disposed to people called Lucy and hate Agathas. This isn't based on empirical research- I don't know any Agathas- and though I know lots of nice Lucys I had the prejudice before I met them.

In a sense we have been playing this game for a long time. The 18th and 19th Century were filled with great and interesting theories about why we like what we like. Karl Marx's argument about class in part is an argument about culture- or at least became so in the hands of his 20th Century interpreters. Names for instance are very vulnerable to the fashions of class- the preponderence of Ernies as bus drivers or train drivers in the 1930s (and even in Harry Potter novels) has a lot to do with the fact that noone calls their kid Ernie today! But there are more individual things as well- the bias towards letters may be one- which we use to group the world and understand it. In truth the world were we to try to understand it rationally from the word go would just be too confusing- there is too much that is new and radically different- and so we use categories to understand it. Some of those may be rational categories- like for instance the fact that I tend not to like mustard, hence all mustard sauces are forbidden no matter how enticing. Some of them though come from deep in the psyche- I'm sure sexual preference for example influences our behaviour in ways that we are not aware of- equally I'm sure memories of our parents suppressed in our psyches do. These things of course Freud and Jung and their disciples attempted in the 20th Century to get at and still do.

So the simple suggestion that the first letter of our name influences our attitude to the news shouldn't surprise but it should remind us. Know then thyself says the poet- if only we could is the response of the learned modern! And now I'm off to donate to something beggining with G...

5 comments:

Lord James Bigglesworth said...

Is there a hurricane Jemima somewhere currently?

Dave Cole said...

Actually, Tiberius, you need to worry about Hurricane Gustav in the Atlantic and Hurricane Genevieve in the Pacific (which, btw, is already a Tropical Storm). The World Meteorological Organisation names tropical storms and hurricanes; the names for the Atlantic season are here and their counterparts for the Pacific are here.

xD.

EMH said...

And just think of Oscar Wilde's Importance of Being Ernest. And the whole mess that a preconceived notion of a name makes...

Gracchi said...

Not as far as I know- though check Dave's chart!

Merci monsieur Cole I now am several pounds lighter in my wallet!

EMH all I can say is oh dear!

Ken said...

It's not just in donations these things have been noted. My favourite story along these lines is that there is a massively disproportionate number of dentists called Dennis! More generally, people are more likely to have a job that sounds something like their name, or begins with the same letter. There was an article on it in the Times last year.