If you’re in a particularly bad mood, getting called by your sibling’s name might make you feel like the offending parent doesn’t care enough to keep their kids straight. But according to a 2016 study published in the journal Memory and Cognition, your parents might actually mistake you for your siblings because they care about you.
A team of students in Duke University’s Department of Psychology and Neuroscience conducted a series of surveys to find out who gets misnamed, who misnames them, and why it happens. Some instances appeared to have been caused by phonetic similarities between names—e.g. you accidentally called your boss “Katherine” (your cousin’s name) instead of “Kathleen.” But the survey results also pointed to strong semantic trends. In other words, family members are often called other family members’ names, friends are often called other friends’ names, and people outside those two categories are often mistaken for other people outside them.
Basically, as the researchers explained in a Quartz article, we build semantic networks in our brains where we can group similar information together and recall it easily. Facts about your immediate family members, for example, may be stored in one semantic network; while details about friends might go in another one. In your mom’s mind, then, your and your sister’s names are essentially in the same basket, and your mom might unwittingly grab your sister’s when she meant to grab yours. What the researchers argue is that it’s a little less about the mistake and more about the basket: Parents love their kids, so they put you all in the same top-tier basket.
The results also suggest that some family member baskets aren’t just reserved for humans. A staggering 41 of the 42 pet-related misnaming incidents involved calling pets by family members’ names or vice versa, rather than mixing up two pets’ names. And most of those incidents involved dogs, specifically.
“Given the scarcity of misnaming episodes involving the names of family pets other than dogs, our data suggest that dogs may be a central part of (at least some) families … as human-like members, whereas cats and other pets, although they may be part of the family, are not categorized as human-like,” the authors wrote in the study.
If you’re about to get defensive on behalf of your cat, whom you very much consider a human-like part of your family, keep in mind that 42 is a small sample size. And the whole study only included about 1700 participants, who were all reporting misnaming episodes remembered from their past—leaving plenty of room for human error. In short, as is so often the case with scientific studies, more research is needed. That said, try not to take it personally if your dad mistakes you for the dog.