Misnaming: The Science Behind Calling People by the Wrong Name

The next time your mom calls you by your brother’s name, your father’s name, or even your dog’s name, don’t get offended. This is not because you look anything like your pet schnauzer or because you’re the least favorite child, but likely because she is experiencing an interesting phenomenon known as misnaming.

The Scientific Explanation Behind ‘Misnaming’

Have you ever been randomly called a variety of names by someone who has known you your whole life? Or have you ever been on the other end of the spectrum just frantically trying to remember your own child’s name while blurting out others’?

You have probably been in this type of situation in one way or another. It can either be extremely awkward or something you can just laugh off with friends and loved ones. But have you ever wondered why this ever happens in the first place? Scientists call this phenomenon misnaming, which happens when a person calls someone else by the wrong name. An in-depth study of this phenomenon was conducted by members of the Noetics Laboratory at Duke University.


Researchers gathered 1,700 people in a room and asked each of them if they have ever been misnamed or have misnamed someone else. The results were outstanding, not only did the volunteers admit on misnaming their own children, but there were 42 confirmed cases of people calling their children by their pet’s name!

As stated above, misnaming has nothing to do with people (or animals) looking alike. Neither does it stem from the fact that some names, like Mark and Mike, do sound similar. Surprisingly, misnaming does not follow a random pattern either. Instead, they often occur within certain social groups. Think about how your mother misnames her own children by using names of other people within the family, or how friends misname each other using the name of another friend.

Misnaming is not limited to a certain age group. Researchers found that among undergraduate students and older adults, the undergraduate group was more likely to misname their peers.

Wikimedia / Leonardo Dasilva

David Rubin, professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University, describes misnaming as a “cognitive mistake we make, which reveals something about who we consider to be in our group.”

So how exactly does this work? According to the study, the human mind stores information about a person in a mental semantic network, the same place that contains details about places and things. As we attempt to remember something, the units are activated, and once it reaches a certain threshold, we remember it. But because of a process called spreading activation, other information related to that idea may also be activated, leading to errors that are often said out loud.

Pexels / Trinity Kubassek

Parents are the most common culprits of calling their children by their sibling’s name. If you are wondering why the family pet’s name is occasionally thrown in, it’s likely because your parents consider them as part of the family, thus storing their information in the semantic network.


Quartz magazine had this to say about misnaming:

In this mind map, a mother likely associates her children with one another.

When attempting to retrieve the name of her son, she is more likely to inadvertently select the name of her daughter than the name of a colleague due to the close connections between her children’s names in her semantic network.

In other words, your mom calls you by your sibling’s name because she loves both of you, and associates you with one another.

Pixabay / brankin62

There you have it, you don’t need to worry as the entire phenomenon is all just an unmindful act of love. So if you happen to find yourself guilty of misnaming one day, then count your lucky stars, it only means you have an abundant number of loved ones in your life.

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