Why We Misname Familiar Individuals

calling someone the wrong name

We assume our parents have favorites, when they turn to us and call us by our siblings’ or dog’s names. They often call up to three names before they it get right: ‘Bernard, Juliet, Moses‘ – Thanks to recent study on ‘misnaming’ i.e. calling someone the wrong name , and this study backs reasons why we shouldn’t take offense.

The incorrect names aren’t chosen at random. Rather, they tend to follow certain patterns, according to the study published in the journal Memory and Cognition. The study authors profess that we tend to calling someone the wrong name when they’re either part of the same social group.

It’s a normal cognitive glitch, Samantha Deffler, a Ph.D. student at Duke, a cognitive scientist at Rollins College, who is also the lead author on the study.

For the study, the researchers did a survey of more than 1,700 men and women of different ages. Including participants who had reported either being called by the wrong name or who had misnamed someone else. In addition, the study participants knew the person they often misname well, also, participants were being misnamed by those they know very well.

Researchers note that misnaming is not related to a bad memory or to aging, but, saying or calling someone the wrong name often took place within the same social group.

a cognitive mistake we make, which reveals something about who we consider to be in our group, said David Rubin, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University and the senior author on the study.

So, when mum calls you by dog’s name, she does consider dog to be part of the family.

Study authors also discovered that phonetic similarities between names leads to more mix-ups: names with the same beginning or ending sounds.

It’s like having special folders for family names and friends names stored in the brain, authors added.

Let’s assume you need a quick help from someone in a particular group, perhaps family member. Your brain revolves round the family folder, until you you retrieve the exact family name.

As you are preparing to produce the utterance, you’re activating not just their name, but competing names, says Neil Mulligan, a cognitive scientist at UNC Chapel Hill.

Whatever dog we had at the time would be included in the string along with my sister Rebecca and my brother Jesse, Deffler adds.

Psychologically, it implies that we categorize the dog’s name along with our family member’s names.


Deffler SA et al. All my children: The roles of semantic category and phonetic similarity in the misnaming of familiar individuals. Memory & Cognition. 2016.

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