Storm names matter – in some unexpected ways. The more prominent a hurricane name in the news, the more likely that during the coming year there will be an increase in babies named not after the storm specifically (so don’t expect a platoon of Sandy’s), but with names that evoke the storms’ name. Writing in the October issue of Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, researchers Jonah Berger, Eric Bradlow, Alex Braunstein and Yao Zhang of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School found that names starting with K, such as Karl and Katie, became about 9% more popular after Hurricane Katrina - evidence that parents' choices about what to call their children are influenced by the sound of names in the news. The Harvard Business Review, reporting on the research, points out that the more damaging, and thus the more prominent, a hurricane, the more popular are names containing sounds similar to the storm's oft-repeated name.
The researchers were investigating how psychological processes shape the evolution of culture. They looked specifically at how a cultural item's popularity is shaped by the recent popularity of other items with features in common. Using more than 100 years of first-names data, they examined how a name’s popularity is influenced by the popularity of that name’s component sound in other names in the previous year. They demonstrated the causal impact of similarity on cultural success in an experiment using hurricane names, in their paper titled “From Karen to Katie: Using Baby Names to Understand Cultural Evolution.” The results suggest how the similarity between cultural items affects their popularity and a way in which culture evolves more broadly.
So, perhaps we should get ready for a bump in babies named Susie, Sara, Sammy, Stacy, Stevie and Steffi in 2013.