My grandmother would often mix me and my brother’s name, something which I’ve always attributed to her failing memory. In hindsight, however, I now realize everybody does this. Though this might sometimes be embarrassing, a new study suggests scrabbling people’s name is completely normal and by no means a sign of bad memory or aging.
Samantha Deffler, a cognitive scientist at Rollins College, in Winter Park, Fla., surveyed 1,700 men and women of various ages and found people often mixed the names of family and friends. She says this is a ‘cognitive glitch’ resulting from how the brain categorizes and stores these names. The names of people closest to our social circle are stored in their own folder, so to speak, while the names of acquaintances, distant relatives or people you just recently met are stored in another folder.
Deffler and colleagues found that when people used the wrong name for a person, in the vast majority of cases the name that was used fell in the same category as the name that was supposed to be used. This happens when our brain is multi-tasking and has to quickly retrieve the words. Say you’re very concentrated writing an essay when your daughter Emilly walks in to ask about something. You’re still facing the computer screen, typing, when you reply “It’s in the cupboard, Megan”. “It’s Emily, mom. Megan’s my sister, remember?” *facepalm*.
According to Deffler, the names Emily, Megan and maybe a couple others are floating in the mind and mom picked one because they were in the same folder. These names have different priorities but sometimes competing names win, resulting in a momentary glitch. And yes, moms seem to be the group most prone to name mix-up.
Oddly enough, it’s not only loved ones’ names that get mixed up. It can happen with pet names too.
“Whatever dog we had at the time would be included in the string along with my sister Rebecca and my brother Jesse,” Deffler recalled from her personal experience.
Mom might call you by your dog’s name, which can be hilarious or weird, depending on the situation. However, pet name mix-up seems to happen only with dogs. The study suggests people are far less likely to mix a person’s name with that of a cat, chinchilla or some other pet. It’s not clear why but it may be that some dog owners care about their pets just as much as human loved ones.
“Overall, the misnaming of familiar individuals is driven by the relationship between the misnamer, misnamed, and named; phonetic similarity between the incorrect name used by the misnamer and the correct name also plays a role in misnaming,” the researchers reported in the journal Memory & Cognition.
So, folks, now you have the perfect excuse when you mix-up your partner’s name with the “ex”. Seriously, you can try to science your way out.