Science and the Sounds and Shapes of Names

New research: Can the sound of your baby's name influence people's perceptions of it?

By David Sidhu

Guest blogger David Sidhu shares some of his fascinating research on the personality traits people associate with certain names. And if you’d like to delve further into the subject, he’s provided some references at the end.

What’s in a name? Is there any scientific reason to expect that we might associate certain kinds of information with a name, based on the way it sounds or feels to pronounce? Yes! It seems that certain kinds of names are associated with not only particular shapes, but also personality traits!

But, before we get to names, we have to take a few steps back, to 1929, when Wolfgang Köhler first claimed that certain made up words (or “nonwords”) might go along better with certain shapes. He suggested that if people were presented with two shapes: a round one and a spiky one, and told that one was a “baluma” and one was a “takete,” everyone would naturally pair “baluma” with the round shape and “takete” with the sharp shape. His assertion has since been demonstrated experimentally a number of different times: people associate nonwords like “bouba”, “maluma” or “luna” with round shapes; and nonwords like “kiki”, “teetay” or “paka” with sharp shapes. This has come to be known as the “Bouba/Kiki Effect.”

Interestingly, this effect can be observed as early as four months of age and in cultures as remote as the Himba tribe of Northern Namibia.

The Bouba/Kiki Effect is believed to be due in part to the way that these nonwords sound. “Maluma” is a much smoother and more constant sound than the choppier “kuhtay”; these sound features of the nonwords reflect the visual features of round and sharp shapes. The effect is also believed to be due in part to the differences in how these nonwords feel as they are pronounced. The way your lips touch in “maluma” feels much softer than the abrupt movements of your tongue in “kuhtay”; this too reflects the visual features of either kind of shape. The Bouba/Kiki Effect seems to suggest that people will associate the features of nonwords in one modality (their sound and feel) with features of shapes in another modality (vision). When there is similarity, a nonword will “seem to go along with” a particular shape.

Okay, on to names. In a recent study we asked the question of whether The Bouba/Kiki Effect would extend to first names (see it here). That is, will people associate round-sounding/feeling names like “Bob” or “Molly” with round silhouettes, and sharp-sounding/feeling names like “Kirk” or “Kate” with sharp silhouettes? Or, will the fact that people already know these names and have existing associations to them, override whatever similarities the sound/feel of the names have with the silhouettes? (Think, for example, of a certain captain who happens to be named Kirk, but who might be described as round, especially in later episodes.) We ran a study in our laboratory at the University of Calgary in which we showed people a round and a sharp alien silhouette, along with a single name, and asked them which silhouette was the best match for the name. Indeed, people more often chose names like “Bob” for rounder aliens and names like “Kirk” for sharper aliens.

This isn’t simply a quirky study by psychologists with too much time on their hands; this has implications for language processing in general. Previous studies of this sort have all used nonwords, making it possible that the sound and feel of “realer” words wouldn’t evoke the same associations with shape. As we said, perhaps existing associations with the names would trump these shape associations. Our findings rule out these possibilities; even when dealing with existing words, the way the words sound and feel can have an impact on the kind of information people will associate with them.

Of course, we didn’t stop there. Next we were curious if certain personality traits might also seem to go along better with certain names, based on the way that the names sound or feel. Intuitively, you can probably imagine some personality traits that might seem to go better with softer sounding/feeling names, and others that go better with choppier sounding/feeling names. But instead of relying on our intuition, we asked a good number of people at the university to describe someone with a “round and curvy personality” or a “sharp and spiky personality.” We wanted to get at personality traits that were metaphorically round or sharp, and then see if they would be associated with names that sounded/felt round or sharp. This metaphorical roundness/sharpness is difficult to put into words, but I’m sure you would agree that easygoingness (one of the most metaphorically round adjectives) is more descriptive of a “round personality”, and that determination (one of the most metaphorically sharp adjectives) is more descriptive of a “sharp personality.”

We once again brought participants into our laboratory and this time showed them personality traits that were metaphorically round or sharp, one at a time. We also showed them two names: one round sounding/feeling (like Bob), and one sharp sounding/feeling (like Kirk), and simply asked them who would be more likely to possess the adjective that they just saw? As expected, we found that Bobs and Mollys were rated as more adaptable, nice and unreliable, while Kirks and Kates were rated as more determined, sarcastic and harsh. This suggests that people will associate personality traits with names based on the way that those names sound/feel.

So it turns out that there is a good scientific reason to believe that people will associate certain kinds of information—visual features and personality traits—with a name based on the way it sounds or feels to pronounce. Of course this doesn’t suggest that all Bobs are easygoing, or that all Kirks are determined. But, in terms of the question “what’s in a name?” the answer seems to be: plenty.

Sources:

Bremner, A. J., Caparos, S., Davidoff, J., de Fockert, J., Linnell, K. J., & Spence, C. (2013). “Bouba” and “Kiki” in Namibia? A remote culture make similar shape– sound matches, but different shape–taste matches to Westerners. Cognition, 126, 165-172.

Köhler, W. (1929). Gestalt Psychology. New York, USA: Liveright.

Maurer, D., Pathman, T., & Mondloch, C. J. (2006). The shape of boubas: Sound–shape correspondences in toddlers and adults. Developmental Science, 9, 316-322.

Nielsen, A., & Rendall, D. (2011). The sound of round: Evaluating the sound-symbolic role of consonants in the classic Takete-Maluma phenomenon. Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology, 65, 115-124.

Ozturk, O., Krehm, M., & Vouloumanos, A. (2013). Sound symbolism in infancy: evidence for sound–shape cross-modal correspondences in 4-month-olds. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 114, 173-186.

Ramachandran, V. S., & Hubbard, E. M. (2001). Synaesthesia: A window into perception, thought and language. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 8, 3-34.

Sidhu, D. M., & Pexman, P. M. (2015). What’s in a name? Sound symbolism and gender in first names. PloS ONE, 10, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0126809

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