The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The weird reason dogs really are a big part of the family


Maybe your teacher called you by the name of your older brother or sister. Maybe you called your new boyfriend by the name of your ex. Maybe your mom called out the name of the family dog – and you realized she was trying to address you, instead.

Most of us have had the experience of calling someone by the wrong name, or being “misnamed” ourselves. A new study published in the journal Memory & Cognition suggests that these linguistic slips aren’t personal. They don’t mean that the speaker doesn’t know you, or recognize your gender or species. They are not a window into unconscious desires -- as Sigmund Freud suggested in his theory of parapraxis, more commonly known as a “Freudian slip,” or as the TV show "Friends" suggested in the episode where Ross says the name of his long-time love Rachel at the altar -- as he's marrying a woman named Emily.

Instead, the practice of “misnaming” simply reveals something about how your brain organizes names and categories of people, the new study says. The researchers, from Duke University, investigated the little-researched practice of misnaming through five different studies that included more than 1,700 participants. They asked both undergraduates and members of Amazon Mechanical Turk, a work marketplace, to recall incidents where they were misnamed or where they misnamed someone. (Since the results are self-reported, researchers caution that they may include errors, and that the information might only capture the incidents that participants remember the best, rather than the wider phenomenon of misnaming.)

The researchers found that these slips of the tongue followed a specific pattern: People often switch the names of people with similar social relationships to themselves. Siblings are often called by the names of other siblings, friends are called by the names of other friends, and sons and daughters may have their names swapped. The results suggest that seeing or thinking of a person might trigger an incorrect activation in the brain of another person’s name, since these people are in the same social group or category.

The degree to which the names sound the same – their “phonetic similarity” – also plays a role in misnaming. Past studies have shown that similar sounding words can prime people to recall certain names – so when test subjects are presented with the word “cherry pit,” they’re more likely to come up with the name “Brad Pitt.” So people are also somewhat more likely to mix up names that sound similar in some way, like Michael and Mitchell, or Joey and Mikey.

Interestingly, the study also showed that people often substitute the name of family members for the family dog – though the trend didn’t hold for other pets. Though just as many participants in the study owned cats as dogs, people rarely reported calling their family members by the cat’s name. The researchers say this may be because dogs are thought of as human-like members of the family or because dogs come when called, so people more often verbally communicate with their dogs than other pets.

One takeaway from the research is that we probably shouldn't take offense at being called by another name. These mistakes just reveal that someone is really a friend or a member of the family -- including the dog.

You might also like: 

There’s a mathematical reason you’re less popular than your friends

Why 37 is a very special age

The secret to disagreeing with people from 20 different countries, in one chart