Brett Steele: The Bouba-Kiki Effect and First Impressions

Written on November 30, 2007 by Santiago Iñiguez in Arts & Cultures & Societies


Last Thursday, Brett Steele, Director of AA (The Architectural Academy School of Architecture)

Brett_steel_meets_diego_alcazar Brett_steel

lectured at IE Business School on "Architecture and Innovation". It was a really enjoyable session that, unexpectedly, revealed many cultural aspects common to his institution and mine: the spirit of innovation, our orientation to market and the somewhat disruptive nature embedded in both schools. At the Q&A, we discussed about on-line methodologies, where he and I differed. Steele holds that, concerning education, the direct experience of interfacing within the same room –tight and crowded- can not substituted by the interaction through communication technologies, sophisticated as they may be. Our experience at IE, however, I sustained, tells the contrary. Our blended programs produce better results than conventional methodologies in terms of acquiring knowledge, developing interpersonal skills and enhancing networking. I further added that students who first relate to each other on-line may get a deeper knowledge of each other, more intellectual, "detached from the prejudices that our senses sometimes provide us". I was asked by some intrigued colleagues afterwards about what I meant by this, whether I was adhering to some pure conception of spiritualism and attacking the senses as a valid source of knowledge, or even pleasure. I will take this opportunity to explain myself further.

Most people agree on the impact of first impressions in our opinions of people. Experts in personnel recruiting, for example, say that the first thirty seconds of a job interview are decisive, since during this lapse the interviewer elaborates an impression of the candidate that rarely changes throughout the remaining time. That is why careers advisors emphasize the importance of appearance, dressing and gestures when attending job interviews. Something similar happens at first encounters with other people and also in the early sessions of a course. Participants in the first sessions of a program make themselves quick impressions of their fellow classmates based on their looks, the timbre, volume and tone of their voices, their attitudes and, in general, all the non-verbal communication displayed. Of course, these first opinions may evolve and change over time since intensive programs such as the MBA foster the projection of many different facets of the personality through participation in class or teamwork. But compare this experience with the alternative of on-line interaction, where participants start to know others though a mind-to-mind approach, a more intellectual relationship that addresses, allow me to say, first the soul rather than the body. Many people who make friends though the web understand this experience, which has a precedent in the epistolary relations prevalent before emailing was available.

Inevitably, when we first meet other people face-to-face we make first impressions of them regardless these have even opened their mouth. An analogous evidence of this the experiment called "The Bouba-Kiki Effect", carried out by Wolfgang Kohler in 1929. The experiment consisted in showing the two figures below to a wide number of people, asking which was called "Kiki" and which "Bouba", respectively. 

The vast majority of respondents identified "Kiki" with the starry, angular-shaped figure and "Bouba" with the rounded one. These results brought him to the conclusion that most people associate names and ideas to the shape and form of objects. Something similar is applicable to interpersonal relations. Generally, if there is no previous knowledge, people tend to classify people they first encounter according to the "kiki" and "bouba" categories we have in mind.

"What is essential is invisible to the eye", said the Fox to The Little Prince. I believe he was right.


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