Have you ever been called a name other than your own, such as the name of a sibling or another family member? Growing up, I was sometimes called by my sister’s name or even the dog’s. The reason behind the mixing up of names of our family members and friends is a cognitive mistake of grouping loved ones together.
Researchers at Duke University say this cognitive mistake, known as misnaming, comes from the way our brain files information and the predictable patterns of how we categorize our loved ones. Our brains put our friends in one relationship category and our family members in another. In a recent study completed by the university, the reason is due to the special meaning we place on the relationships. Even the family’s pets are included in the family category. It is more common for a person to be called the dog’s name rather than the cat’s, because dogs are known to be more social animals. Also, the study revealed that phonetic similarities—sounds that are similar—have a part in misnaming. If names begin or end with similar sounds, it is easier to get the two confused. Take my family, for example, my name is Megan, and my sister’s name is Shannon. Both of our names end with a similar sound. This also works with names that have common vowel sounds. However, physical similarities between two people don’t seem to matter. Parents still confuse siblings’ names even when they look nothing alike.
Another reason for this cognitive mistake is stress and frustration. It is more common to confuse two people’s names when you are tired and angry. You are trying to call out a name as quick as possible, either to call someone for help or to punish their behavior. Sometimes the person’s name you need doesn’t always come first to your mind. When you are stressed, it can be hard to recall a name out of all the names of people you know. The good news is mixing up names isn’t a sign of aging or a deteriorating brain.
There are tips to help improve name recall. These tips are especially helpful when meeting new friends or future family members, such as in-laws, but they are also helpful with immediate family. When greeting someone you know, take a second and let the person’s name be the first thing you recall about them. Use their name to introduce and start the conversation. After meeting someone new and hearing their name for the first time, keep repeating it to yourself. Repetition and imagery build memory. Second, use their name occasionally in conversation and when saying “Hello” and “Goodbye.” Using it in conversation helps you to remember his or her name and also creates a better rapport. However, be careful to not overuse their name after every other word. You can also use names in a sentence to sound more personable. For example, if talking to a parent at your child’s school, instead of saying, “How is your daughter’s art project going?” say “How is Emily’s art project going?”
If all else fails and you cannot remember a name, it is sometimes better to say nothing than use an incorrect name. This is different from pronouncing someone’s name wrong. With mispronunciation, you are trying to recall their name and instead say something similar. Finally, connect a person’s name to something about them. Use their facial features, their job, an object, or something you talked about to relate it to their name. Having something associated with a person’s name helps you to remember and retrieve their name easier.
Don’t be embarrassed if you mix up friends’ and family members’ names. It is a common cognitive mistake that happens to everyone. Just don’t take it personally if it should happen to you.
Article published in Forsyth Family Magazine.