It happened to me constantly when I was growing up — my grandma would call me for dinner or to do a chore, but she would verbally stumble first. "Geri, Phil, Toby, Amber ... Starre, dinner time!" The first four names in the list are, respectively, my father and uncle (her sons), and two of our dogs. And while it's true that both the humans and the dogs all predated my existence, I still found it slightly insulting that she often seemed to forget my name.
But a recent study has shown that I needn't have taken it so hard. Published in the journal Memory & Cognition, researchers looked at five previous studies including more than 1,700 people that had looked at misnaming (their term for when someone calls a familiar person by another's name). They determined how common it was, and identified the underlying factors behind it, and then tested some catalysts for the phenomenon.
"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," wrote the researchers.
So names within the same category — kids that are siblings, or friends within a group, were most likely to have their names confused. And while similar-sounding names can affect how often this happens, it's not that important — it's more about the relationship.
It's not an age thing, either
The researchers said their work also confirmed that making this kind of mistake is "common and committed by people of all ages," which is a relief to anyone who has ever made this kind of mistake. "Moreover, misnaming does not appear to be an indicator of aging or of the cognitive decline typically associated with Alzheimer’s disease," wrote the researchers on Quartz. Phew!
So if it's not mental decline, why does this happen?
It's due to the way the brain stores information. We all keep info about the people we know in a semantic network, which is then linked to places, other people and objects. When we recall something, even something as simple as a name, that network is activated. And when enough related stuff is remembered, there's enough information to allow us to remember. (And yes, this all happens very quickly.)
"Through a process called 'spreading activation,' other information related to a concept may also be activated — this may lead to errors if incorrect information reaches a threshold and is remembered, such as the name of a loved one," write the researchers. So a parent stumbles over other kids' names before your own because he loves them — as he loves you. You're all related on the memory map in the parent's mind.
Interestingly, in the study referenced above, the scientists also found that the family dog was included in that list of misnamed family members. This simply indicates that for the people who make this mistake, their dogs' names are stored in the same semantic network as their kids' names — as part of the family.
Which probably surprises nobody with a beloved family dog or two. (Interestingly, the same did not hold true in most cases for cats, revealing that we may think of them differently at a brain-map level.)
So if you have a family member who stumbles through the names of other loved ones before they get to yours, take it as a sign of love, not impending dementia or lack of care for you. In fact, it proves just the opposite.