Mismatched names and faces could make a difference at the polls - study

What's in a name? Apparently a lot if it doesn't match your face - particularly if you're a politician.

A new Otago University study looking at how well face shapes match their names found people tend to associate names like 'Bob' and 'Lou', which require the mouth to make a rounded shape, to those with round faces.

Conversely, people found those with 'angular' names like Pete and Kirk suited more angular faces.

The study, by Professor Jamin Halberstadt and PhD student David Barton, delved further into the so-called 'Bouba/Kiki effect' and found if a person's name doesn't match their face, they're seen as being less popular.

The pair put their findings to the test using US politicians' faces. A 'matching score' was created for 158 candidates in the Senate, based on independent ratings of face roundness and name.

They found having a face that matched the name was worth 10 percentage points at the polls.

"Those matching scores predicted the outcome of Senatorial elections between 2002 and 2008 in the US, or at least predicted the number of votes the candidates received," Prof Halberstadt said.

How well do some of New Zealand's politicians rate?

Mismatched names and faces could make a difference at the polls - study
Photo credit: Newshub.
  • Labour's leadership team Andrew Little and Jacinda Adern both have "relatively angular faces" which match their names
  • Prime Minister Bill English is "sort of in the middle of the continuum" and so is his predecessor Sir John Key
  • New Zealand First leader Winston Peters has a "relatively good matching score"
  • Green Party co-leader Metiria Turei has a "well-fitting name"

While the study didn't look at New Zealand politicians, he guessed the effect here would likely be "pretty small" because big differences would only likely be seen with names and faces at both extremes of the scale.

The study looked at correlations to predict outcomes and not why people voted for certain candidates.

"We're not saying people made their voting decisions based on those outcomes. It could very well be people with well-fitting names, maybe they have good policy.

"If they do, you could argue relying on the fit of their names is actually a reasonable strategy; it isn't an irrational way to make a decision."

But if any politician was thinking about changing their name to make them more popular, it'd be a the sign of a campaign which has already sunk.        

"If they're relying on the name/face match to get into Parliament then I'd say they're already in trouble. But if that's all they've got then sure, they could pay some attention to how they're referred to," Prof Helberstadt said.

A prime example of a name matching a face is late All Black great Jonah Lomu.

jonah lomu all blacks face name
The late Jonah Lomu's name matches his face pretty well. Photo credit: File

"He's got a lot of rounded vowels and he was also a pretty rounded-headed guy as well," Prof Halberstadt said.

The effect has been documented in relation to sharp and curved shapes. Previous experiments showed that across ages and cultures, 'bouba' is associated with the more rounded shape and 'kiki' to the shape with jagged edges. 

The shapes used in the bouba/kiki test
The shapes used in the bouba/kiki test. Photo credit: Supplied

Participants in the Otago University study ranked which of six suggested names suited 20 overly exaggerated round and angular faces.

They consistently matched nine of 10 round faces with round names, and eight of 10 angular faces with angular names. It was a similar rate for images of real life, untouched photos of male faces.  

"We showed that people have a preference. They do think that people with angular faces should have these more jagged names and think that those names are more appropriate. So the Bouba/Kiki effect extends to people," Prof Halberstadt told Newshub.

"The more interesting thing is that when people mismatch there's this sort of emotional kind of connotation that goes with that, so people don't like or punish people that aren't good fits.

"People would probably realise there's that connection, but probably wouldn't give much weight to it. When we asked people about that they don't usually say 'it's because of the person's name'."

He says the study focused on US candidates out of convenience, and that similar studies had also used the same group of people.