What does Bob look like? … Bob who? … No, just Bob, any Bob. And while you are at it, what does Kirk look like? At first glance those questions appear absurd. How could anyone infer an unknown person’s looks from their name? Why would the average Bob look any different from the average Kirk?
As it turns out, however, the relationship between objects and their referents is not entirely arbitrary. People tend to map the linguistic properties of words onto the physical characteristics of the things those words describe.
In one classic demonstration of this effect, participants were presented with novel shapes such as the ones shown below:
Imagine you are a participant in that study and you are next given the cue “in Martian language, one of these two figures is a ‘bouba’ and the other is a ‘kiki’, try to guess which is which.” What would your response be?
There is every chance that you would label the shape on the left kiki and the one on the right bouba—around 95% of participants agree on this assignment.
Intriguingly, there is nothing special about bouba and kiki per se: the same agreement on the assignment to shapes emerges with other pairs of non-words such as takete and baluma.
It appears as though the sharp changes in visual direction of the lines in the kiki (or takete) on the left matches the sharp phonemic inflections of the sound “kiki” (or “takete”) better than the more rounded bouba shape on the right. Conversely, the bouba shape matches the more gradual phonemic inflections of “bouba” or “baluma” better than the shape on the left.
This so-called bouba-kiki effect has been widely replicated and may represent a general cross-modal mapping between roundedness of a shape and the roundedness of the mouth when pronouncing its name.
So now what does Bob look like? As opposed to Kirk? In the figure below, who is Bob and who is Kirk?
A recent article in the Psychonomic Bulletin & Review sought to establish the existence of a social bouba-kiki effect (let’s call that the Bob-Kirk effect), and to test the affective consequences of the assignment of names to faces.
Researchers Jamin Halberstadt and David Barton first asked participants to rank order a candidate set of names for each of a number of stimulus faces (e.g., 10 angular and 10 round faces; see above for a sample) according to their “suitability” for each face. Across several studies, it was consistently found that congruent names—i.e., Bob for a round face and Kirk for an angular face—were ranked as more suitable for any given stimulus face than their incongruent counterparts.
These results tell us that people have a consistent and strong intuition about how a person “ought” to be named—simply looking at a face evokes an expectation about what names are and are not suitable for that face.
Researchers Halberstadt and Barton thus established the existence of the Bob-Kirk effect.
The next, arguably even more interesting, question pertained to the affective consequences of the Bob-Kirk effect. Are people better liked when they are named congruently than incongruently?
Halberstadt and Barton addressed this question in a study in which participants rated their liking of a person twice: first when shown the face alone, and then again when the name of the person was revealed. The stimulus faces were again either angular or round, and the names were randomly assigned subject to the constraint that half of them matched the face (Bob for a round face) and half did not (a round face called Kirk).
The results showed that across the two ratings, there was an overall effect of congruence: round Bobs and angular Kirks were liked better than angular Bobs and round Kirks. Although this effect was very small and only marginally statistically significant, when the analysis was broken down by rating stage, the congruence-effect was amplified: participants liked faces more after learning that they were congruently named when they made their second judgment (with no effect or a negative effect when participants discovered that faces were incongruently named).
Halberstadt and Barton conclude that people not only “expect” others to have names that match their faces, but people’s affective responses to faces are modulated by the congruence of a person’s name.
To examine whether this effect arises merely in the laboratory, or whether it might have practical implications, Halberstadt and Barton analyzed the effects of name-face congruence among political candidates. It has long been known that a candidate’s attractiveness predicts his or her success at the polls. Might the congruence of politicians’ names also play a role in electoral success?
In this final study, participants were presented with faces or names of 158 political candidates (all from U.S. Senate races in which the two primary opponents were both white males). The participants’ task was to either rate the shape of the face or the shape of the names. Those estimates were averaged across participants to yield a face roundedness and a name roundedness estimate for each candidate. Those estimates, in turn, were combined into a congruence score, such that round Bobs (and angular Kirks) had low scores whereas angular Bobs (round Kirks) had a higher score. (Strictly speaking, the measure was therefore one of mismatch, rather than congruence.)
To illustrate, the figure below shows two congruently-named politicians in the top row, and two incongruently-named candidates in the bottom row. The numbers behind each name represent the score just explained.
When those scores were related to vote shares, it turned out that candidates who were extremely well matched—that is, the round Bobs in the top of the above figure—earned a greater proportion of the votes than those who were extremely poorly matched—such as Rocky and Brian in the bottom row of the above figure.
At first glance, politicians might therefore be well advised to consider changing their name to be more congruent with their looks. After all, the history books are full of politicians who started out life with different names. And Nelson Mandela was probably a more congruent name than Rolihlahla Mandela, and Gerald Ford may have looked more like himself than Leslie Lynch King Jr.
Article focused on in this post:
Halberstadt, J., & Barton, D. (2017). A social Bouba/Kiki effect: A bias for people whose names match their faces. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, DOI: 10.3758/s13423-017-1304-x.