“Sammy, Marie, Baxter, Lauren!” Your parents might have run through your siblings’ names and the dog’s before landing on yours. 

But why do we do that? Samantha Deffler, a cognitive scientist at Rollins College, in Winter Park, Florida, set out with her colleagues, Cassidy Fox, Christin Ogle, and senior researcher David Rubin, to conduct a survey of 1,700 men and women of different ages. 

They discovered that naming mistakes are very common. Almost everyone mixes up the names of family and friends on the regs. Their findings were published in the journal Memory & Cognition.

So what’s the deal?  “It’s a normal cognitive glitch,” Deffler says.

It’s not related to a bad memory or to aging, but rather to how the brain categorizes names. It’s like having special folders for family names and friends names stored in the brain. When people used the wrong name, overwhelmingly the name that was used was in the same category, Deffler says. It was in the same folder.

Guess who is most vulnerable to the naming mix-ups: Moms. 

It works something like this: Say you’ve got an armful of groceries and you need some quick help from one of your kids. Your brain tries to rapidly retrieve the name from the family folder, but it may end up retrieving a related name instead, says Neil Mulligan, a cognitive scientist at UNC Chapel Hill.

“As you are preparing to produce the utterance, you’re activating not just their name, but competing names,” he says. You flick through the names of all your other children, stored in the family folder, and sometimes these competing names win.

Apparently, the family dog is also filed away in that special place for loved ones’ names. Cats, hamsters and other family pets don’t get the same preferential treatment, as a rule. 

So the next time a loved one mixes up your name with a bevy of others, just know that they love you. 

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