What’s That Name: Bouba or Kiki edition

A name is a very important way to distinguish people, yet a very arbitrary and random measure. When you think of your own name, I doubt you even think twice. It has been with you all your life and you’ve learned, very early on, that it is specifically associated with you. As you’ve progressed through life, you have no doubt interacted with people of all different names, all of whom have played different roles in your life.

Me and my roommates on a weekend trip to Belgium. After a month of living in Paris with them, I know their names and share the experiential connection of this program with them.

When it comes to strangers, however, we have no connections that tell us anything about their lives. We know nothing about who they are, yet there can be something in their face that makes us randomly associate them with a name. Personally, whenever I’m at the airport for a long time, I resort to people-watching: I do not know the man who passes me, yet I feel as though his name must be something like “Bob”, or “Lou”. How can I possibly make such an association with a complete stranger?

As it turns out, the answer may have to do with cross-modal communication. Originally it was thought that this kind of “arbitrary connection” sort of communication existed only in the rarest cases, such as a person with synesthesia (individuals who experience activation of one seemingly unrelated sense when another is activated). However, an experiment known as the Bouba-Kiki effect served to change the public view on cross-modality between senses.

The Bouba-Kiki Effect: Which of these two objects seems more like a Bouba? Which do you see as Kiki?

Observing the figure above, which of the two shapes do you feel is Bouba? Which would you call Kiki? The answer seems to come easily, doesn’t it? Turns out, the vast majority of people who took this test called the figure on the left Bouba and the one on the right Kiki. If there was truly no association between this unknown shape and these seemingly arbitrary names, how could a majority of people consistently come to the same conclusion?

The Bouba-Kiki effect describes this phenomenon in which names are randomly assigned to abstract shapes in a systematic manner (Cuskley, Simner, and Kirby, 2017).  In the example above, Bouba is a name that requires the mouth to form a rounder shape. Bouba sounds softer and more rotund, and the physical sensation of saying this name aligns with the rounder and gentler abstract shape on the left. Saying Kiki induces sharper pointed sounds, such as how the abstract shape on the right is physically spiky and harsh. These results indicate that we may all have synesthetic tendencies and make arbitrary connections between different types of data.

Figure: Example stimuli faces shown during the Barton Bouba-Kiki experiment

Even though it may seem like a stretch, a recent study by Barton and Halberstadh (2017) seeks to prove that this random association is also present when we are identifying the faces of complete strangers. In this experiment, participants were shown a set of random faces that were either quite angular or quite round (see above), and they were asked to randomly assign names to these faces, in ranked order. Six names were available to choose: Jono, George and Lou were the “round” names, while Mickey, Kirk, and Pete were the “pointy” names.

After 20 randomized trials in which participants ranked names for these face stimuli, a significance was found for sharper faces (those on the left of the above figure) that were named from the “pointy” name category, as well as for rounder faces (those on the right of the above figure) named from the “round” name category. This means that the odds of naming a face with its correspondingly sharp or round name are greater than random chance.

Figure: Senatorial candidates and their name-face association. A higher score represents POORER fit between name and face, while lower score represents HIGHER fit between name and face.

These connections between face shape and name identification have interesting implications. Are peoples’ names completely arbitrary? According to the figure above, Bob Weygand would have a social advantage over Rocky Raczkowski due to a better fit between name and face. Socially, certain face shapes carry expectations about the attached name; when these expectations are violated, more complex social judgments take place about the quality of that person’s character (Barton and Halberstadh, 2017). It has been shown that people who “match” with their name (in terms of the distinctions mentioned above) are generally seen as having a character consistent with their name and appearance. For example, in the political sphere, candidates with well-fitting names tend to win their seats by about a 10-point margin as compared with competing politicians (Barton and Halberstadh, 2017).

So there you have it! Your face might give people a clue as to what your name could be, and you may get an innate social advantage by having a high association between your face and your name. Looks like our parents had a lot to consider when they chose our names!


Barton, D. N., & Halberstadt, J. (2017). A social Bouba/Kiki effect: A bias for people whose names match their faces. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 25(3), 1013-1020. doi:10.3758/s13423-017-1304-x

Cuskley, C., Simner, J., & Kirby, S. (2015). Phonological and orthographic influences in the bouba–kiki effect. Psychological Research, 81(1), 119-130. doi:10.1007/s00426-015-0709-2

Roommate picture: From Me

Bouba-Kiki picture: https://www.sciencefriday.com/educational-resources/media-guide-the-bouba-kiki-effect/

Both Face Stimuli pictures: Barton and Halberstadh (cited above)

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