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What’s in a Name? How Naming Something Changes the Way We Think About It

Feb 22 2022 • 3 min read

Have you ever wondered why so many peoples across the world and through the ages have decided that they need a God of Thunder or Lightning?

Be it Thor in Norse mythology, Zeus in Ancient Greece, Vajrapani in Buddhism, or Indra in Hinduism, the gods of extreme weather often play a particularly powerful and prominent role.

And yet us humans rarely feel the need to put a name to less forceful meteorological events. There is no God of ‘delightful summer days’ or ‘mild, but persistent drizzle’.

We have, it seems, recognised for thousands of years that giving something a name can change how we think about it.

Which is why, in 2015, a couple of thousand years after the Greeks were first discussing Zeus’ role in creating storms above the Mediterranean, the UK Met Office started naming storms.

As Liz Bentley, Chief Executive of the Royal Meteorological Society put it, ‘Having named storms gives them a kind of uniqueness, identity and higher profile’ that encourage people to ‘listen and take action’.

But what are the psychological processes at play behind this change in status?

One of the most important factors is the ability of a name to draw our attention, even when we might think that they would be drowned out by other sounds.

The ‘cocktail party effect’, for example, refers to our remarkable ability to detect the slightest mention of our own name, even within a bustling room. It turns out that similar filtering processes are at play when we hear other words, such as those with important emotional cues, being uttered.

Names also provide us with a tool for summarising complex sets of materials – be they events, ideas or even diseases. And this makes it much easier for us to recall and refer back to them in a way that others immediately understand.

There is a very good reason why people working in health communications did not insist on using the term ‘severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2’ to describe Covid, for example. Or why Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein agreed with their editor’s suggestion that their book should be called Nudge and didn’t stick with the original working title: ‘Libertarian Paternalism’.

A storm with a name draws our attention in the same way. It captures our attention more than an unnamed storm. And it helps us to delineate and give focus to specific events. Hence why we now know that there were three separate storm events in mid February – Dudley, Eunice, and Franklin – not just a very blustery week.

Research is now confirming many of these insights. Media coverage of Storm Doris, which hit the UK and Ireland in early 2017, found that coverage was amplified as a result of the storm having a name.

By routinely referring to the storm by name, journalists and social media users inadvertently helped to draw the public’s wider attention to the impending danger.

So if you ever want people to pay more attention to a book, product, or meteorological event, don’t overlook the importance of a good name.

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