The science behind getting names wrong

  • 19/01/2017
A 'Hello, my name is' sticker (Getty)
It's easy to call someone by the wrong name - but why? (Getty)

Ever wondered why mothers sometimes call their kids by the wrong name - or even confused you with the dog?

Don't worry - science says you're not going senile.

Researchers at Duke University have found not only is it common, it doesn't matter how old you are, how good your memory is or even how many kids you have.

"It's a cognitive mistake we make, which reveals something about who we consider to be in our group," says Duke psychology and neuroscience professor David Rubin, who contributed to the study.

"It's not just random."

When we get someone's name wrong, it's almost always with a name of someone we consider to be from the same category - for example, another child.

"We find that familiar individuals are often misnamed with the name of another member of the same semantic category; family members are misnamed with another family member's name, and friends are misnamed with another friend's name," says the study, published in journal Memory and Cognition.

That includes romantic partners - the study noting the famous scene from Friends when Ross says "I take thee Rachel" during his wedding to Emily isn't so far-fetched.

As for pets, they found it's common for parents to use the dog's name when shouting at their children - but rarely the cat's.

An Italian greyhound dog looking quite confused (Getty)
'Are you talking to me?' (Getty)

"Our data suggest that dogs may be a central part of (at least some) families as human-like members, whereas cats and other pets, although they may be part of the family, are not categorised as human-like."

The effect extended to celebrities. Presented with a picture of John F Kennedy, forgetful study participants were more likely to suggest another President's name - such as Ronald Reagan - than anyone who looked like Mr Kennedy.

The similarity of names plays a small part, but "the size of this effect was smaller than that of the semantic category".

The study didn't look at why older family members tend to make more mix-ups, but in an interview with Scientific American one of the authors suggested it was because they had more descendants, so more names to remember, rather than a failing memory.