You Say Kiki, I Say Bouba, Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off

Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck isn’t just one of Britain’s best-known restaurants, it’s also got this rather illuminating flash game which you can play while you idle away the several months waiting time for reservations. Go and play it now – it really only takes a couple of minutes – then come back and read the rest of this post.

The game is based on the “Bouba/Kiki Effect”, a psychological phenomenon which identifies – so sez Wikipedia – “a non-arbitrary mapping between speech sounds and objects”. The Fat Duck site applies Bouba and Kiki to different ingredients and, as you’ll know if you played it, it gets pretty consistent results.

Heston looking a bit bouba.

We think the game is great because it sheds light on how we make decisions. The first time you see an ingredient and have to choose Bouba or Kiki your decision may not be arbitrary but it’s not necessarily anything you could articulate, and it certainly isn’t something you can process logically. A lemon is kiki because, well, it just is.

After that, though, rationalisation can kick in. Or rather, something that feels like rationalisation can kick in. If a lemon is kiki then so is a pepper. If one bar of chocolate is bouba the other must be too. (Interestingly, in the original experiments the words are associated with shape, whereas on the Fat Duck site they seem to link to sharpness or intensity of taste.)

This isn’t us making better choices or weighing up options – it’s simply consistency bias at work: we are applying a rule we don’t fully understand and coming up with reasons why. So the question for researchers is: how much does this apply to brands? Is the initial purchase decision in a category carefully thought out – or is it simply more like kiki vs bouba?

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3 thoughts on “You Say Kiki, I Say Bouba, Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off

  1. Interesting. No denying Mr. Kahneman’s stuff, but – so? And isn’t it important to differentiate by category? And really suggesting no decisions have any rational element in them is a tad misleading. Finally – maybe this is a UK phenomenom – but reducing everything to suggestive noises is a little culturally pessimistic, and intercuturally insensitve.

  2. Thanks for the comment Edward! We’re not saying that NO decisions have any rational element in them – in a nutshell we’d assume that MOST decisions are led by system 1 and rationalised by system 2, so it makes sense to concentrate on the former. Not sure how to parse your last comment – the bouba/kiki effect is intercultural, which is why it’s so interesting to linguists.

    And in terms of the so what, I think there’s two interesting things: one (very basic) outcome of the b/k effect is that it implies there’s a level of unconscious fit between design and name – I know pharma researchers do a lot of name research and are probably aware of these effects! And the other is that if decisions involve consistently following internal rules which have subconscious choices like this at their root, it’s a good idea to try and find out what those rules might be.

  3. Tom. I’m a linguist. I’m also interculturally attuned. So I am very curious to receive your link helping me understand what you mean by the last part of your last sentence of the first paragraph. I would challenge the first “implication” of your second paragraph – simply on the basis of what do you make that statement? The second sentence of your second paragraph: you’ll have to help me out. I do not wish to quote a cliched Wittgenstein phrase, but am tempted. All in all – if this is selling BE in an oblique manner (am sure it’s not) then I mentally find myself tempted to replace the E with another letter. I declare that this game shed pretty little additional light on how I (we??) make decisions. With all due respect.

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