Why do people muddle up names?

2 min read
Why do people muddle up names?

I call my mom every other day at a designated hour to go through the same routine questions about food, kids, weather, and chores and I often hear her yell back at my dad shushing him as she is speaking to her son, my brother. I am so used to this that I continue speaking without batting an eyelid or bothering to clarify that it is me, her daughter that’s taking out the time to call her and not her son (who calls once a week). Does this ever happen with you?

Growing up, I had to make my peace with the fact that she loves my brother more than me and now I simply blame it on her age and pretend I didn’t even notice. But since we welcomed a second baby into our lives, and started making the same mistake that my mother does, we were plagued by parents’ guilt. We started looking for ideas to get the names right and I even considered post-it notes for a while; but how do you label babies when they start moving around? You can’t!

In course of our research on how to not muddle up names, we chanced upon a study published by Duke University, which proves that this is a cognitive mistake arising out of how our brains categorize names. Simply put, our brains happen to slot and store names of related individuals (siblings, friends, family, etc.) in the same folder/ drawer.

Researchers find the brain stores close relationships in a special ‘family folder’
'It's a cognitive mistake we make, which reveals something about who we consider to be in our group,' said David Rubin, a psychology and neuroscience professor at Duke, and one of the authors of the study.
'It's not just random.'
Researchers conducted five separate surveys of more than 1,700 respondents to determine the many ways people mix up the names of their loved ones.

While fetching for a name, our brain at times inadvertently picks another one from the same folder. This proves that my mom has always treated both me and my brother alike, and her brain has assigned us the same sibling folder. My husband and I have shed off the burden of meaningless guilt for not being able to love the toddler as dearly as our first-born.

The study also found that phonetic similarity can trick the brain. Names with the same beginning or ending sound (e.g. Barry and Harry or Michael and Mitchell) would lead to more chances of being misnamed than usual.

A fun finding of the study is that people sometimes happen to categorize the name of their pet dog with family or children. So, kids growing up with pet dogs have at times lovingly been misnamed as their pets.

I hope this article resonates with all who have either grown up in a big household with siblings and cousins; or are now as parents raising more than one child. Bottomline, we can now go on calling our kids by the wrong names (without the guilt) and hope that one of them will do the chore being thus assigned to them.


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