An Initial Reaction to Disaster Relief?

In 2005, Hurricane Katrina struck the Caribbean Sea and the southeastern United States, with the city of New Orleans particularly impacted. The storm, which raged for nearly a week, claimed the lives of more than 1,800 people and was responsible for an estimated $125 billion in damage. All that pain and damage led to an immense amount of support from around the globe; in total, non-government organizations received more than $4 billion in donations in support of those impacted by Katrina, with the Red Cross receiving roughly half of that. If you were alive for the response efforts and were in a position to give, there’s a good chance you did so.

And there is an even greater chance you did so if your name begins with the letter K.

People, in general, tend to like themselves — or, at least, I hope we do. And people also tend to have names. (Mine, for example, is Dan Lewis.) That combination probably shouldn’t matter, but in 1978, a Belgian psychologist named Jozef Nuttin wondered if it did. One day, perhaps while on a drive, he noticed that some car license plates appealed to him more than others — and that’s weird, because license plates, by and large, are identical in design. Nuttin thought it over a bit and concluded that it was his name that made the difference; the plates he liked were the ones that contained the letters found in his name. This anecdotal evidence wasn’t enough to warrant any scientific conclusions, though, so Nuttin got to researching. He formulated an experiment and in 1985, published a paper titled “Narcissism beyond Gestalt and awareness: The name letter effect,” concluding that “independent of visual, acoustical, aesthetic, semantic and frequency characteristics, letters belonging to own first and/or family name are preferred above not-own name letters.” Or, in other words, we tend to have a strong preference for the letters in our name. 

Why this happens isn’t clear — the cause of the name-letter effect, as it is now known, is hotly debated in psychology circles. But there’s significant evidence that the effect exists — and disaster relief happens to be one of the clearest. That’s what Jesse Chandler, a psychology professor at the University of Michigan, demonstrated in a 2008 paper titled “In the ‘I’ of the storm: Shared initials increase disaster donations” (pdf here). Chandler and his team looked through “donation records of a Midwestern chapter of the Red Cross” comprising roughly “66,000 donations from 1930 to 2006.” Those donation records contained the first name of the donor (the Red Cross, citing privacy concerns, did not give Chandler any last names), the donation amounts, and whether the donations should be earmarked for a specific intervention. Using this data, Chandler and team “were able to identify several hurricanes that seemed destructive enough to influence donor behavior. Hurricanes Katrina (August 2005) and Rita (September 2005) both had specific funds dedicated to them” while donation data from a few other storms could also be isolated with some extra work. 

The team then sorted this data by the donor’s first initial to see if the name-letter effect played a role in donations, and it turned out it did — and by huge margins. People whose names began with K made up about 4.2% of donors pre-Katrina but were 9.8% of the Katrina relief donations, a 140% increase. The authors saw a similar increase for each of the six other storm-initial combinations they investigated as well. 

It’s unlikely that this will be used to help increase storm relief, but it has been used in other philanthropic fundraising contexts. In 2015, Charles Best, the founder of DonorsChoose (a non-profit that raises money for classroom projects), wrote about his organization’s Valentine’s Day fundraising campaign. Inspired by Chandler’s findings, Best’s team sent 500,000 past donors an email with a poem: “Roses are red, Violets are blue, Give to a teacher, With the same name as you.” They also sent another set of donors a different email, with a similar poem, ending it with “Give to a teacher, In the classroom near you.” Both emails contained a list of potential donees that matched the poem’s criteria. The results? “Name-matched donors were nearly three times more likely to give to a classroom project “and “name-matched donors also gave more generously – nearly three times as much as donors referred to a geo-targeted teacher.”

Bonus fact: In 1989, Hurricane Hugo caused massive devastation, particularly in the Caribbean — $11 billion in damage and causing 107 deaths. Among the structures destroyed was the only Olympic-sized swimming pool on the island of Saint Croix, which ended the swimming career of a ninth-grader on the island. At the urging of his family and friends, the young man took up another sport: basketball. The kid, named Tim Duncan, ended up becoming one of the game’s best ever, winning multiple NBA championships and earning induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2020 — and has used his fame and fortune to muster hurricane relief along the way

From the Archives: Stop the Bop: A creative Hurrican Katrina fundraiser.