What Is The Psychological Effect Of Naming Storms?

Nick Epley at the University of Chicago has been studying the effects of naming inanimate things like storms. He finds that doing so gives them human-like qualities —among them, intentionality.

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Along with plenty of ice, sleet and snow, much of the country has also been blanketed this winter by an avalanche of names. When winter storms assault us, they now come with names like Hercules, Janus and, the most recent storm, Pax.

Here's NPR's social science correspondent Shankar Vedantam on why we name winter storms and how those names might affect us.

SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: We've been naming hurricanes for many years.

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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: The list of names for the 2010 year are as follows: Alex, Bonnie, Collin, Danielle...

VEDANTAM: Now The Weather Channel is doing it with winter storms.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Winter Storm Pat, when is it going to be winter storm leaving South? When...

VEDANTAM: At the University of Chicago, psychologist Nicholas Epley has noticed a pattern. We tend to name some weather systems but not others.

NICHOLAS EPLEY: Notice that long stretches of beautiful sunny weather don't get names.

VEDANTAM: Now, you probably think the idea of naming beautiful spring days is silly - and it is. But there's some very interesting psychology behind why we don't name spring days, and do name destructive storms. Epley explains that psychology in a new book called "Mindwise," which is about how humans read the minds of others. Most of the time, this is a very useful skill. When you talk to a friend, you try and read her mind to gauge her mood, to anticipate how she'll react to what you're saying.

The funny thing is we are so adept at mind-reading we regularly try and read the minds of things that don't have minds at all.

EPLEY: Once this mind reading system - once this sixth sense that we have about others is triggered, then we can sometimes see minds almost everywhere we look.

VEDANTAM: Epley says one sign that we are mind-reading inanimate objects is when we give those objects a name.

EPLEY: Computers, our cell phones assistants...

SIRI: How can I help you?

EPLEY: ...our cars...

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ANDY ROONEY: ...Mercury Montego, who would have decided Montego was a good name for a Ford car?

EPLEY: ...our GPS phone lady in the car...

SIRI: Service road in 0.5 miles.

EPLEY: Those are the main ones that come to mind.

VEDANTAM: When we give objects a name we interact with them as if they had human properties. People talk to their GPS systems. They have personal relationships with their car.

Epley says the mind-reading system is especially likely to be activated in certain circumstances.

EPLEY: When something behaves unexpectedly, it's not obvious why this person or that thing behaved as it did, that's when a mind is needed.

VEDANTAM: Unexpected, dangerous events are powerful triggers for our mind-reading system to kick into gear. When we see a mind behind an unexpected event, it appears to have what psychologists call intentionality. Our brains start to ask, why did this happen? What we can do to prevent this from happening again?

EPLEY: Major weather events have two attributes to them that are particularly likely to make them seem somewhat mindful.

VEDANTAM: One, they're dangerous.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: More than a foot of snow before it's all said and done...

VEDANTAM: And second, they are unexpected.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: We're thinking generally five to eight. But it's going to be much more off to the north and to the west...

VEDANTAM: When we give a storm a name, it becomes a little more humanlike. This explains why, long before The Weather Channel started naming winter storms, humans have given names to destructive natural forces. There are Greek gods for thunder and lightning, but no Greek gods for wispy clouds on clear summer days.

EPLEY: But it's possible that when you give a storm a name, you give it a persona. That makes it more likely to see it as mindful.

VEDANTAM: It's not clear what the effect of naming storms has on us. Epley says the psychology of why we name storms is better understood than the psychology of what happens when we name storms. There's a potential downside.

EPLEY: The Weather Channel is more than happy to drum up fear and concern for winter storm Janus or Hugo or Humberto or which ever one is coming on us next.

VEDANTAM: But there might also be a potential upside to what The Weather Channel is doing. It might help people who are lackadaisical about dangerous weather pay more attention.

Shankar Vedantam, NPR News.

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