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Robert P. Burriss Ph.D.

Does Your Name Fit Your Face?

People may be liked more if their face and name go together

New research by psychologists from New Zealand suggests that there may be negative social consequences if our name doesn't match our face.

You may have heard of the Bouba/Kiki effect. If not, here’s a brief introduction: If I show you two abstract shapes, one of which is angular and sharp and the other soft and rounded, and I ask you to tell me which of the shapes is called Bouba and which is Kiki, what would you say?

Robert Burriss
Two shapes. Which is Bouba and which is Kiki?
Source: Robert Burriss

Most people say the angular shape is Kiki and the rounded shape is Bouba. But why? Psychologists think it might be because we pronounce the name Bouba by rounding our mouths to produce those soft vowel sounds. Conversely, we pronounce Kiki’s plosive consonant and sharp vowel near the back of our mouths — no rounding of the lips at all.

This connection between mouth shape, sound, and appearance may be a form of synesthesia. People who experience a stronger form of this psychological phenomenon can sometimes hear music when they read, or taste flavors when they count, because the neurological signals caused by one stimulus inadvertently trigger sensations in another modality. The Bouba/Kiki effect may work in a similar way, except at a level almost all of us can appreciate.

But what, you might ask, does this have to do with faces? Well, not much until David Barton and Jamin Halberstadt of the University of Otago in New Zealand decided to run a series of experiments.

They realized that faces, like abstract shapes, can vary in their angularity or roundedness. Perhaps some names better suit some faces than others. After all, everyone knows a couple that has settled on a name for their child during pregnancy, only to meet their progeny for the first time and declare “he doesn’t look like a Ronald."

Barton and Halberstadt downloaded photographs of men from various internet databases. These photographs were all neutral, passport-style images. The researchers specifically chose faces that varied in their angularity — some men had the angular features of a Channing Tatum or Matthew McConaughey; others had the softer features of a Leonardo DiCaprio or a Jonah Hill.

Guillaume Paumier/Flickr
The rounded face of actor Jonah Hill and his 21 Jump Street co-star, the more angular faced Channing Tatum.
Source: Guillaume Paumier/Flickr

A group of volunteers looked at each of these faces and ranked a set of names according to how much they suited each face. Some of the names, just like Bouba, were typically soft and round: Jono, George, and Lou. Other names, as with Kiki, were typically sharp: like Pete, Kirk, and Mickey.

The results of the study showed that angular names were thought to be more suitable for angular faces, and softer names more suitable for softer faces.

So far, we have a neat but perhaps not especially ground-breaking extension of the original Bouba/Kiki effect. But here’s where it gets more interesting.

Liking a Name that Fits the Face

Barton and Halberstadt ran a new experiment. This time they had volunteers rate how much they liked each person, based only on their facial appearance. After rating each face, they were given an additional piece of information — the person’s name — and asked whether they would like to revise their rating.

Of course, the volunteers were not shown the face’s real name. Instead the name was randomly selected from a list of angular or rounded names. The faces were also angular or rounded, so the name could be congruent or incongruent with the face.

In general, people preferred angular to rounded faces, but they also adjusted their ratings based on the names. Rounded faces were liked more once they were revealed to have a rounded name. The effect was even stronger for angular faces: They were liked more if their name was revealed to be angular and less if their name was rounded.

A Senatorial Face

Now the researchers hopped back onto the internet and downloaded some more photographs, this time of male candidates for U.S. Senate elections between 2000 and 2008. A new group of volunteers separately rated the candidates’ names and faces for roundedness, and the researchers computed difference scores that captured whether the angularity of a politician’s name matched his face. Some candidates had angular faces and angular names, some had rounded faces and rounded names, and others had faces that were more or less round than their names.

In a final step, Barton and Halberstadt tested whether politicians whose names were congruent with their faces received more or fewer votes in their elections. They found that well-named candidates did indeed secure more votes than their less aptly-named opponents. Candidates with very well-fitting names received 10% more votes than those with very poorly fitting names, a margin that must surely have contributed to the victory of some sharp-faced Mikes or soft-faced Johns.

Syda Productions/Shutterstock
Source: Syda Productions/Shutterstock

Barton and Halberstadt report: "People’s names, like shape names, are not entirely arbitrary labels. Face shapes produce expectations about the names that should denote them, and violations of those expectations … feed into more complex social judgments, including voting decisions."

For an audio version of this story, see the 4 July 2017 episode of The Psychology of Attractiveness Podcast.

Support me at patreon.com/psychology and receive bonus podcasts and blogs.

References

Barton, D. N., & Halberstadt, J. (in press). A social Bouba/Kiki effect: A bias for people whose names match their faces. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review.

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