Updated: Feb 28
“What makes fire burn? The fineness of the sides, the sharpness of the angles, the smallness of the particles, the quickness of the motion. Moreover, the pyramid, which is the figure of fire, is more cutting than any other.”
-Plato, Timaeus (2008)
The Bouba/Kiki effect was discovered by Wolfgang Köhler (1947) and reported in his book Gestalt Psychology: an Introduction to New Concepts in Modern Psychology. It helps demonstrate universal psychological relationships concerning spikiness and high-pitch, in the more exciting category, and roundness and low-pitch in the less exciting category. People consistently assign a higher-pitched name, “Kiki,” to a spikier, more angular, roughly star-shaped figure and a lower-pitched name, “Bouba,” to a smoother, rounder, more blob-like figure in experiments. We decide the same way regardless of age, including infants, and regardless of language or culture. The consonants are more important than the vowels in the Bouba/Kiki effect (Fort et al. 2014). Assuming this means we find the consonants more noticeable, and exciting, than the vowels, we might extend this to the shapes as well, and assume the spiky one is generally more exciting to perceive than the round one. Extrapolating hypothetically on the effect, it seems very likely that, given the choice to name a long, thin figure and a circular one either Kiki or Bouba most people would choose Kiki for the long thin one and Bouba for the round one. In other research it’s been discovered that we associate Yin with Kiki and Yang with Bouba (Milan et al. 2013). The authors found that “85% choose the star-shaped figure as yin.” They also found associations between Kiki and various aspects of personality, leading them to describe what they call the “fat-thin effect” which can be seen in the contrasting shapes of characters in stories:
"The starshaped figure is overall clever, tall, small, slim, nervous, unpleasant, and upper-class. That is, the correspondence above all concerns the qualifying adjectives clever, unpleasant, and nervous, as well as the physical appearance small and thin. This brings us to the fat-thin effect. Cinema, literature, comics, and children's programmes are full of contrasting figures: Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, Laurel and Hardy (called the fat man and the skinny man in Spain), Asterix and Obelix, Tintin and Captain Haddock, Bert and Ernie (Epi and Blas in Spanish), or the Spanish comic about very naughty twin boys called Zipi (with fair hair) and Zape (with dark hair)” (Milan et al. 2013).
The authors show that people associate tall and thin characters with higher-pitched names and rounder characters with lower-pitched names among various pairs of fictional characters from popular culture. The existence itself of such a large set of characters contrasting in shape and color is of interest here. Such instances reflect similar patterns in language, and help demonstrate the importance we attach to mixtures. Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, or Burt and Ernie, offset each others length and roundness to create an overall sense of moderation we find intriguing. In humans the rounder, more inward sex exhibits a higher-pitched voice than the relatively spiky, outwardly formed male sex, which is characterized by lower-pitched vocalizations. This is opposite to the associations in the the Kiki Bouba effect. Humans find mixtures of high-pitch and roundness more intriguing than high-pitch and spikyness combinations. Presented with a pointy character named Bouba, or a round one named Kiki, violating our assumptions, crossing mental categories, we experience a period of fascination with the idea and often prefer it to things being arranged as assumed; round Kiki is cooler than spiky Kiki and spiky Bouba is more exciting than round Bouba. The mixtures are probably preferred over categorical combinations. A person forms themselves into a relatively spiky and high-pitched combination of features when he or she is upset, pointing, flipping people off, threatening various types of bodily penetration and raising the pitch, randomness and volatility in their voice to be unpleasant. Other animals are similar, for instance a squirrel whipping its tail above its body emitting high-pitched barking sounds, a Mountain Lion, Puma concolor, displaying its incisors and hissing, or a snake showing its fangs and long, double pointed tongue are not doing so to appear likable.
Fort, Mathilde, et al. “Consonants Are More Important than Vowels in the Bouba-Kiki Effect.” Language and Speech, vol. 58, no. 2, 2014, pp. 247–266., doi:10.1177/0023830914534951.
Milan, E et al. “The Kiki-Bouba Effect A Case of Personification and Ideaesthesia.” Journal of Consciousness Studies, vol. 20, 2013.
Plato. Timaeus. Translated by Benjamin Jowett. Apple Books. 2008.