When Sandra Deffler’s professor called her by the name of another student, it reminded her of a common occurrence during her childhood: anytime her mom needed to get the attention of one of the kids, but was in a rush or exasperated or angry, she would often call the name of the wrong child, or even that of the family’s misbehaving pooch.
Deffler, a memory researcher, figured the name muddling phenomenon might be more common than she’d initially assumed and decided to look into it. So, she and her Duke University colleagues designed a multi-part study that included more than 1,700 participants.
Name mix-ups were most common among family members and friends. Moms and dads mix up the names of their kids along with the family dog, and friends mixed up the names of their pals. In a survey of more than 1,500 college students, more than half reported that they had been called by the wrong name by a parent or friend.
“My mom would call me and my sister Cassidy the dog’s name,” said Deffler, now a visiting assistant professor of psychology at Rollins College. “I was initially disheartened, but now we’ve found out that it happens to a lot of people. It appears to be a problem with recall."
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The mistakes may be rooted in the way we file information in our brains, which appear to work like a library cataloguing system. Just as books about psychology would be stacked on the same shelf, the names of family members appear to be filed together, while the names of friends are filed in a different spot. The mistakes happen within those categories.
You might pick up the wrong psychology book because you got the call number a digit off, and similarly, your brain can grab the wrong friend’s name even if you’re looking right at her.
One of the most intriguing findings — people sometimes throw the family dog’s name in the mix. The same was not true of cats and other pets. This may say something about the relationship people have with their dogs, Deffler suggests.
“It may be because people use dogs’ names more often than cats’ names,” she said, adding that might be because dogs are more likely to respond when their names are called. “It may be that dogs are more social animals and are thus more of the family ‘pack’ than cats are.”
It's not a slam against cats, Deffler said. “I have two, and I love them very much,” she said.
Another interesting result: people were more likely to come up with the wrong name of a child when they were tired or frustrated or angry.
These kinds of mistakes are completely normal and not a symptom of aging or a deteriorating brain, says Emily Rogalski, associate professor and director of neuroimaging at Northwestern University’s Cognitive Neurology & Alzheimer’s Disease Center. Rogalski is unaffiliated with the study.
“When you think about the array of different choices someone has when they recall a name, it’s amazing they’re able to come up with the precise label at all,” Rogalski says, adding that she’s not surprised that stress increases the likelihood of naming mistakes. “Stresses can cause confusion in the brain.”