Imagine this: You’re running late, and one of your sons is dawdling. “Joe! John! Anthony!” you shout, searching for your son's name but instead listing your other kids, who are already waiting in the car. “Baxter!” you add in exasperation, and the family dog trots up to you responding to sound of his name. “I’m Mark,” your son says.
Many parents can relate to the phenomenon of confusing names of familiar people, even adding the dog’s name to the mix. Scientists believe they’ve figured out why.
A series of studies led by cognitive scientist Samantha Deffler, a Ph.D. student of Duke University at the time, sought an explanation behind these so-called “misnamings” of loved ones. What she and her colleagues learned: It’s all related to how we group together the people closest to us.
Deffler, who now teaches in Florida and published her findings in Memory & Cognition, interviewed more than 1,700 study participants, and found that the most common misnamings were happening among the same groups of family members or acquaintances. In other words, people commonly called friends by other friends’ names and family members by other family members’ names.
Deffler believes this is because the brain stores the groups of names together, almost as though they are kept in separate "folders" of the brain. “As you are preparing to produce the utterance, you're activating not just their name, but competing names,” cognitive scientist Neil Mulligan told NPR, which recently covered this study.
By this logic, using your dog’s name when calling for your kids or spouse just means that you consider the dog to be part of the family “group.”
Interestingly, this phenomenon seems to apply most frequently to dogs, rather than cats or other pets. "“I’ll preface this by saying I have cats and I love them,” Deffler said. “But our study does seem to add to evidence about the special relationship between people and dogs."
So the next time a family member is insulted when you call him the dog’s name by accident, remember that you have love on your side.