“David … no, Mark. Please help me with the shopping bags”, says your mother while confusing, for the umpteenth time, your name with that of your brother.
Confusing the names of the children is quite common and probably you experienced it first hand, and made you feel bad, making you feel the last of the list or that your parents loved you less than your brother.
However, a recent study reveals that there is no reason to worry and that this error just means that your parents love you very much, as much as your brother or your sister.
Everything depends on how we arrange the names in the brain
To understand why parents often confuse the names of their children, we need to learn more about the organization of memory in the brain. In our brain the information is organized in categories related to each other. For example, the concepts that we have of dogs and cats are in the same area, in the “animals” category.
When we memorize something, whether it is a proper name or a concept, the information is included in the stock that we have built in our memory. The names of persons, for example, we put them in different categories, as we would do in an organizer: co-workers, family, friends or acquaintances.
A study conducted at Duke University and the University of Aarhus investigated this phenomenon. The psychologists examined about 1,700 people to find out how often they confused the names of the others and analyzed these errors. 95% of respondents indicated that their parents or other relatives tended to confuse their name. 51% recognized that they too confused the names of the members of their family.
But the most interesting detail was that the most common confusion concerned the names of people who belonged to the same category inside the “stock” of our memory. For example, often we confuse each other the names of our friends, the names of the family members with those of other relatives and the name of the current partner with those of the former partners. However, it is unlikely that we use the name of our mother to call a friend or the name of a child to call a colleague.
In fact, these psychologists found that the physical resemblance between people is not a determining factor to produce the confusion, nor the phonetic similarity between the names.
Therefore, at the base of the error is the kind of relationship we have with the person, not the similarity of its name or physical appearance. So much that some people can confuse even the name of their son with the pet, especially when it comes to a dog, since according to this research, in our mental “agenda” we usually include the name of the dogs inside the “family” category.
Thus, the fact that parents confuse the names of their children does not mean that they love one more than the other, but that both names are stored in a very special area ofthe brain, where are the people we love the most.
Fox, C. et. Al. (2016) All my children: The roles of semantic category and phonetic similarity in the misnaming of familiar individuals. Memory & Cognition; 44(7): 989–999.