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Go Ask Mom

Tony, not Zoe: Study explores why we give family, friends wrong name

Posted January 17

Our children may not remember the millions of moments we spend together while they are young, but they will remember the feeling of being loved. (Deseret Photo)

It happens to just about anybody with friends and family. You call for one child and the name of your other child comes out of your mouth - or the name of your sister or even your dog.

Researchers at Duke University explored the phenomenon of "misnaming" in a report recently published in the journal Memory and Cognition. And they learned a few things: It's common. It doesn't seem to have anything to do with age or memory. And, yes, dog owners really do consider their pups part of the family.

In five studies that included more than 1,700 people, including undergraduates to older adults, researchers found that these misnamings happen simply because of the way our brains group our relationships with individuals.

When we use the wrong name for a family member, we typically use the name of another family member.

And when we call a friend by the wrong name, we usually use the name of another friend.

“It’s a cognitive mistake we make, which reveals something about who we consider to be in our group,” said David Rubin, a study author and professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke, in an article for Duke Today. “It’s not just random.”

Names with similar sounds - like Tony and Zoe or Michelle and Michael - spurred confusion, especially those that shared the same beginning or ending sounds, according to the Duke Today article. But gender or physical similarities didn't come into play.

So this would explain why I call my younger daughter by my older daughter's name. And why I've been known to call my older daughter by my sister's name. And why my own mother sometimes calls me by her sister's name.

We're keeping the names all in the family. And, my mom, a grandmother, and I, a mom, are among the top misnaming offenders. Women and older people were more likely to call people by the wrong names.

"Any mom I talked to says, 'You know, I've definitely done this," said study author Samantha Deffler, who received her PhD from Duke and is now a cognitive scientist at Rollins College, in an interview with NPR.

The study didn't explore why women and older people might mix up names more often, but, in an article in Scientific American, Deffler theorized that it may be just because grandparents have more names to mix up and moms may call for their children more than dads.

The study did uncover a tidbit that surprised researchers, but, maybe not dog owners. When people mixed up their pet's name, they usually were calling a family member Fido or vice versa. They don't seem to mix up their cat,  for instance, with their brother, or their fish with their daughter or their dog with a friend.

“Our study does seem to add to evidence about the special relationship between people and dogs," Deffler said in the Duke Today story. “Also, dogs will respond to their names much more than cats, so those names are used more often. Perhaps because of that, the dog’s name seems to become more integrated with people’s conceptions of their families.”

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  • Amber Perry Jan 18, 1:03 p.m.
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    I wonder how much money was wasted on this.