Psychological Research

, Volume 81, Issue 1, pp 119–130 | Cite as

Phonological and orthographic influences in the bouba–kiki effect

Original Article


We examine a high-profile phenomenon known as the bouba–kiki effect, in which non-word names are assigned to abstract shapes in systematic ways (e.g. rounded shapes are preferentially labelled bouba over kiki). In a detailed evaluation of the literature, we show that most accounts of the effect point to predominantly or entirely iconic cross-sensory mappings between acoustic or articulatory properties of sound and shape as the mechanism underlying the effect. However, these accounts have tended to confound the acoustic or articulatory properties of non-words with another fundamental property: their written form. We compare traditional accounts of direct audio or articulatory-visual mapping with an account in which the effect is heavily influenced by matching between the shapes of graphemes and the abstract shape targets. The results of our two studies suggest that the dominant mechanism underlying the effect for literate subjects is matching based on aligning letter curvature and shape roundedness (i.e. non-words with curved letters are matched to round shapes). We show that letter curvature is strong enough to significantly influence word–shape associations even in auditory tasks, where written word forms are never presented to participants. However, we also find an additional phonological influence in that voiced sounds are preferentially linked with rounded shapes, although this arises only in a purely auditory word–shape association task. We conclude that many previous investigations of the bouba–kiki effect may not have given appropriate consideration or weight to the influence of orthography among literate subjects.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Social Dynamics UnitInstitute for Scientific InterchangeTurinItaly
  2. 2.School of PsychologyUniversity of SussexBrighton and HoveUK
  3. 3.Department of Psychology, School of Philosophy, Psychology and Language SciencesUniversity of EdinburghEdinburghUK
  4. 4.Department of Linguistics, School of Philosophy, Psychology and Language SciencesUniversity of EdinburghEdinburghUK

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