A flashback from 30 years ago in my house with my mother yelling for me from another room, but before she ever gets to me, it goes a little something like this: “Garry, . . .Alex, . . .Patty, . . . Fluffy, . . . HEATHER, . . .have you taken the garbage out?”
Or in other terms: my dad, my brother, my aunt whom I share a physical resemblance, one of our cats, and finally she lands on me
And then just 10 days ago in my own house, I find myself yelling for my daughter to come downstairs:
“Matthew, . . .Tommy, . . .Peter, . . .Belle, . . .ugh. . .KATIE, Come downstairs!”
That is: my son, my husband, our cat, one of our dogs, and finally, my daughter.
When my mother would call for one of her children, she would often launch into what we referred to as the “roll call,” going through the names of each member of the family before finally landing on the intended name. There were only two of us to remember, but when the dog, five cats, my father, and her six siblings were included, she often resorted to “you know what I am trying to say!”
According to a recent article in the Psychonomic Society’s journal Memory & Cognition, more than 50% of college students and adults surveyed recall having been called by someone else’s name, and more than 60% of those students and adults have themselves called someone by another name.
The group of researchers at Duke University (Samantha A. Deffler, Cassidy Fox, Christin M. Ogle, & David C. Rubin, 2016) was inspired by Dr. Rubin’s regular use of alternative names for his graduate students and research assistants, and their own personal experiences with their own mothers’ difficulty recalling their names.
So what drives misnaming people?
Consider the three photos below. Who are those people?
When identifying the first photo on the left, knowledgeable folks might say Katy Perry, which is true of the second picture, but in actuality the first picture is Zooey Deschanel. In case you didn’t know, Katy Perry is a singer and Zooey Deschanel is an actress.
In fact, when they are together . . .there is so much physical similarity that these two celebrities are often confused for one another. It turns out that when two individuals look alike or share physical charactersitics, we are more likely to misname one for the other.
However, if physical similarity were the sole explanation for misnaming, why would my mother mistakenly yell the family dog’s name when intending to call for her child?
For example, take Sir Isaac Newton (1643-1727). He might be conceptually confused with Albert Einstein (1879-1955) because both men were physicists. Newton is known for the law of gravity, calculus, and optics while Einstein is known for the general theory of relativity, wormholes, and quantum mechanics. Together, they have explained a large part of the universe. But they don’t really look terribly alike, as shown in the picture below:
This example suggests that sometimes we misname an individual because that individual shares a characteristic besides physical appearance, like a profession (Brédart & Valentine, 1992) or some other abstract category, such as members of the same family.
But why dogs?
To understand if semantic similarity can explain the inclusion of family pets in misnaming, we must ask a related question: can pets be considered semantically similar to children? Research by Jalango (2015) and Sable (2013) indicates that children and adults form attachments to their dogs and other pets, and that dogs may elicit stronger attachments than cats or birds (Zasloff, 1996). Similarly, dogs form attachments to people (Prato-Previde et al., 2003). Unfortunately, less is known about your “purrable” cats, “furrable” gerbils, and your “cuddle-ble” fish.
There may be other variables that affect misnaming. For example, there are times when we mistakenly say a word because it begins the same as the word we intended to say. The correct word is almost accessed but not quite. Try to recall the name of the opera by Verdi and adapted by Elton John and Tim Rice. It starts with an A and has two syllables. If you can’t think of it right now, you are experiencing a “tip-of-the-tongue” effect (TOT, Brown, 1991; Brown & McNeill, 1966). The TOT effect is well-known, well-studied (Schwartz & Brown, 2014), and described as effortful and disjointed. It is affected by familiarity with the word itself or the topic from which it is derived, as well as by the phonetic difficulty of the word trying to be retrieved. (It’s Aida, by the way).
Unlike TOTs, the misnaming effect seems to be characterized by greater fluidity, less effort and a close, if not correct, substitute being produced. Examples of speech errors with these characteristics include: slips-of-the-tongue (e.g., Freudian slips, such as saying the word breast instead of best when looking at a female), spoonerisms, an unintentional speech error, such as when Reverend William A. Spooner, himself, said “queer old dean” instead of “Dear old Queen,” and malapropisms, in which a word is misused in a sentence (e.g., “I pacifically told Helen, no I mean, Ellen to bring the cat-dog over.”).
Beginning with the simple question of how often did people actually call another person by the wrong name, the Duke University researchers began to pursue a number of other questions related to misnaming. In a 5-study investigation using online surveys, college students and members of the general population answered questions retrospectively about a variety of factors that could influence the misnaming phenomenon, including semantic relatedness, phonetic similarity, presence or absence of the named person, physical similarity of the named and the misnamed, number of named individuals in the string, and emotional state.
Common but Rare
While results collected from the recollections of people must be interpreted with caution, more than 50% of both samples reported experiencing at least one event in which they were misnamed. Gender differences were present in the college student responses, but there was no difference in the community sample. When asked about the experience of being misnamed, college females reported being misnamed more often than college males. Of these misnamed individuals, a little over a third indicated having also misnamed family and friends. Females misnamed others more often than males. People tend to be misnamed by people older than them while misnaming people younger them.
For both college students and the community members, misnaming events tended to occur rarely, about once a month or a year and a name mistakenly spoken sometimes belonged to someone who was present (more than 75% from the college student sample and about 60% for the community sample).
All in a Name
College students and members of the community were more likely to misname individuals who were family members or close friends. They were less likely to misname acquaintances. When an individual was misnamed, the participants reported that they were more likely to use the name of another family member if they couldn’t remember their family member’s name or another friend if they couldn’t remember their friend’s name. So, when my mother went through roll call, she was more likely to call my brother’s name before she called her friend’s name when she was really trying to say my name. The results from both samples indicate that semantic relatedness heavily influenced the misnaming effect.
Interestingly, physical appearance may have influenced the named individual during a misnaming event, but not as often as the phonological similarity between names. In my family, my son and husband look very similar, and I often find myself mistakenly calling my son by my husband’s name. I’d like to attribute it to their physical similarity causing spreading activation to both names, but maybe it is just my unconscious talking to me! Anyway, the authors tested the probability with which the misspoken name and the name they intended to speak were phonetically similar. Across all the studies, the more similar the two names were, the more likely the similar-sounding named individual was substituted for the misnamed individual (e.g., Helen for Ellen).
Ultimately, semantic relatedness was most likely the primary mechanism behind the misnaming effect, suggesting that spreading activation at a categorical level may be behind these speech errors. Likewise, spreading activation at a phonological level can also occur given the high probability that similar sounding names were more likely to be named when misnaming another. Mood of the misnamer did not seem to be related to whether the misnaming event would occur or if a string of names would be used, although this may have been difficult to assess accurately given the retrospective nature of the recall activity and the positivity effect for memory over time in which people, especially older people, are less likely to remember the negative aspects of an event over the time when asked to recall that event (e.g., Reed, Chan, & Mikels, 2014).
And the Dogs?
Well, if your dog (and I will argue for cats too) is truly a family member, as most people report, then its name will be activated right along with the names of the other members of your family and likely to be recalled during a misnaming event, regardless of similarity of appearance! And simply for the cats’ sake (and maybe the gerbil and fish too), more research is needed, especially prospective research, to continue to unravel the factors that surround this misnaming phenomenon.
But perhaps in the end maybe Juliet said it best in William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet: “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet.”!
Article focused on in this post:
Deffler, S. A., Fox, C., Ogle, C. M., & Rubin, D. C. (2016). All my children: The roles of semantic category and phonetic similarity in the misnaming of familiar individuals.Memory & Cognition. doi: 10.3758/s13421-016-0613-z.