The Bouba/Kiki Effect: Understanding the Relationship of Sound and Meaning

black shapes

Bouba and Kiki are two words invented by the German psychologist, Wolfgang Kohler, in his late 1920’s research exploring the connection between sound and meaning. Participants were asked to match two abstract shapes with two made-up words (“Bouba” and “Kiki”). Intriguingly, nearly every single participant matched the sharp, angular shape with the word “Kiki,” and the round, curvy shape with the word “Bouba.”

This phenomenon, now known as the Bouba/Kiki effect, has since been reproduced in several different languages and cultures. It indicates that there is a non-subjective association between the sound of a word and the meaning it represents, theorized to be embedded in our natural view of the world. For example, the crisp and abrupt sounds in “Kiki” may generate a sense of tension, while the round and soft sounds in “Bouba” may invoke a sense of comfort.

The way advertisers name or describe products and services has a significant impact on how they are perceived by consumers. Certain sounds may be more effective in building positive correlations, while others may be more successful in sparking negative emotions. For example, the sound of “taste the rainbow” in an ad for Skittles may conjure the sensory experience of a flavor-rich, juicy Skittle, while the sound of a “cha-ching” in a cellular services commercial may conjure a sense of regret or anxiety. Research shows that the use of certain sounds can also have an effect on customer behavior, like the use of fast-paced music in restaurant or retail settings to reduce time spent instore and increase sales.

To conclude, understanding the relationship between sound and meaning can help us gain valuable insights into the use of sounds to create more effective and engaging messages. Whether it’s in marketing, design, or day-to-day conversation, the Bouba/Kiki effect reminds us of the powerful role that sound plays in shaping our perceptions of the world.

Jenna Eisenberg – Research and Consulting Coordinator