The Bouba–Kiki effect is predicted by sound properties but not speech properties

Attention, Perception, & Psychophysics(2022)

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Humans robustly associate spiky shapes to words like “Kiki” and round shapes to words like “Bouba.” According to a popular explanation, this is because the mouth assumes an angular shape while speaking “Kiki” and a rounded shape for “Bouba.” Alternatively, this effect could reflect more general associations between shape and sound that are not specific to mouth shape or articulatory properties of speech. These possibilities can be distinguished using unpronounceable sounds: The mouth-shape hypothesis predicts no Bouba-Kiki effect for these sounds, whereas the generic shape-sound hypothesis predicts a systematic effect. Here, we show that the Bouba–Kiki effect is present for a variety of unpronounceable sounds ranging from reversed words and real object sounds ( n = 45 participants) and even pure tones ( n = 28). The effect was strongly correlated with the mean frequency of a sound across both spoken and reversed words. The effect was not systematically predicted by subjective ratings of pronounceability or with mouth aspect ratios measured from video. Thus, the Bouba–Kiki effect is explained using simple shape-sound associations rather than using speech properties.
Music cognition, Sound recognition, Spoken word recognition, Multisensory processing
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