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New Proof That We Consider Dogs to Be Family Members

Data shows that dogs are classified as family members in our memory.

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I was sitting and watching a Rally Obedience trial knowing that later that morning I would have to put my own puppy through a similar test. A woman, perhaps 18 or 19 years old, who I knew from some previous dog-related activities, came up and sat down beside me. She had her Golden Retriever, Bunny, on leash beside her.

"Since you are a psychologist, I was hoping that you could answer a psychological question for me," she said. "Is it possible that a parent might love the family dog more than they love their own kids? No, maybe that's not the way to put it—Is it possible that a parent might think of their own kids as no better than the family dog?"

I was puzzled by this line of questioning so I tried to get a bit more information: "Why don't you give me some specific incidents which are worrying you, rather than trying to make it a general question?"

"Well, what's bothering me is that my mom will look at me or my brother and instead of using my name she'll use our dog's name. For example, this morning she looked directly at me and asked, 'Bunny, have you packed a lunch for today?'" The young woman then pointed at the dog and said, "But of course that's Bunny, not me!"

I smiled and explained to her that she was dealing with the kind of "slip of the tongue" errors that have fascinated psychologists for many years. This issue was first pointed out by Sigmund Freud, and we often refer to these verbal gaffes or confusions as being "Freudian slips," although the technical term is parapraxes. Freud thought that these verbal confusions reflected inner thoughts or unconscious feelings and motivations. For example, an acquaintance of mine who is politically active attended a reception for a political candidate organized by a woman whom she felt was a vicious gossip and not all that trustworthy. As she left, she turned to the hostess and blurted out, "Thank you for your hostility," rather than the polite, "Thank you for your hospitality" which she had intended.

Another example which I observed personally occurred prior to a graduation ceremony. One pretty female graduate was receiving an important award. In introducing her, the department chairman described her as "The breast and brightest of our students" instead of "The best and brightest." A Freudian interpretation might be that he was thinking about aspects of her physiology which did not include her brain.

However, psychologists have come to believe that instances when we use the wrong name do not have to do with deep, unconscious motives and beliefs, but rather that these episodes reveal something about how your brain organizes names. It appears that in our memory we sort names into categories of people. This is illustrated by one of my own problems, which is that I occasionally call one of my grandchildren by the name of another. Some of you may have had the embarrassing situation of calling your current spouse or lover by the name of an ex.

Our understanding of this issue has been clarified by a recent study from a team of researchers led by Samantha Deffler of the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience at Duke University. The report, published in the journal Memory and Cognition, suggests that such linguistic slips aren't personal. Misnaming a person doesn't really mean that speaker doesn't recognize an individual, or misinterprets their gender, or even their species. It all has to do with the way that the brain categorizes things.

These researchers investigated misnaming in a series of five different studies which included more than 1,700 participants. They asked both college undergraduates and members of Amazon Mechanical Turk (a work marketplace) to recall incidents when they were misnamed or when they misnamed someone else.

The data showed that these misnaming incidents follow a specific pattern: People often switch the names of individuals with other individuals who are in a similar social relationship to themselves. Friends may be called by the names of other friends, siblings by the name of other siblings, grandchildren by the names of other grandchildren. Sons and daughters may have their names mixed up as well. The results seem to indicate that seeing or thinking about a person might trigger some incorrect activation in the brain of another individual simply because people with similar characteristics, or who are from the same social group or category, are grouped together in the same "neurological bin" in our memory.

This is where the data becomes relevant to the question that was posed to me that morning. This study also found that people often substitute the name of family members with the name of the family dog. It is important to note that this trend seems to be dog specific; it doesn't seem to hold for other pets. Although there were just as many participants in the study who owned cats dogs, people rarely reported calling a family member by a cat's name. The investigators speculate that there might be a number of reasons for this: One is simply that people more often verbally communicate with dogs than they do with other pets. However, it seemed more likely to these researchers that this particular form of misnaming comes about because dogs are thought of as being in the same category as other members of the family. The brain is not segregating the names on the basis of human versus animal, but family versus not family.

I tried to reassure my questioner that she shouldn't take offense at being called by another name, even her dog's. In this case she should recognize that her mother was focused on the idea of family, and her misnaming simply proves that her mother's thinking had entered the portion of the brain which stores all of the individuals that she feels make up her family. Since all of those names are stored in the same "memory bucket," when she dips in she might inadvertently pull out the name of the wrong family member. But the name that she pulls out will be that of someone she considers to be part of her family, even if in her mind that obviously includes the dog as well as her children.

We can generalize these results: Since mixing up the name of the family dog with the names of other family members is a common error, this provides data which suggests that many people consider their dogs to be an integral part of their family.

Stanley Coren is the author of books including Gods, Ghosts and Black Dogs; The Wisdom of Dogs; Do Dogs Dream? Born to Bark; The Modern Dog; Why Do Dogs Have Wet Noses? The Pawprints of History; How Dogs Think; How To Speak Dog; Why We Love the Dogs We Do; What Do Dogs Know? The Intelligence of Dogs; Why Does My Dog Act That Way? Understanding Dogs for Dummies; Sleep Thieves; and The Left-hander Syndrome


Samantha A. Deffler, Cassidy Fox, Christin M. Ogle & David C. Rubin (2016). All my children: The roles of semantic category and phonetic similarity in the misnaming of familiar individuals. Memory & Cognition, DOI 10.3758/s13421-016-0613-z

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