Dairy Milk

ImageAccording to The Guardian, there is a furore over Dairy Milk’s new rounded shapes, as the chocolate tastes sweeter. Dairy Milk promise the recipe hasn’t changed.

Sensory scientist, Charles Spence, says that people associate sweetness with round shapes and bitterness with angular.  Circles are sweet, while triangles and stars are bitter, as well as associated with fizz.

Spence also asked subjects to match speech sounds to different chocolates, as well as shapes. Lindt extra creamy (30% cocoa) gets soft-sounding, lower pitched sounds like ‘maluma’. Lindt 70% and 90% get sharper sounds like ‘takete’.

It’s also been found that tastes can be mapped consistently to musical parameters.

“Bitter is associated with low-pitched and continuous music (legato), salty is characterized by silences between notes (staccato), sour is high pitched, dissonant and fast and sweet is consonant, slow and soft.”

These crossmodal correspondences mean we must, deep within our brains, taste our music and hear our tastebuds. A fascinating new area of research about how our brains respond to the world we live in.

Mind Your Language

ImageWords matter. We all know that.

The difference between someone choosing life-changing surgery might be whether you tell them it has an 80% survival rate, or a 20% mortality rate.

We know it as conversationalists, when we use the wrong word and watch our friend’s face fall.

We know that as advertisers. It’s why we change a runny yoghurt into a ‘probiotic drink’, mark it up 100% and sell it as a health product. It changes the frame of reference, both for the category its sold in, and the consumers who buy it. 

Now this study about how words prompt us what to see. If prompted with ‘dog’, participants were more likely to see the image of the dog being shown – an aspect of priming perhaps. But also proof that language and sight are intertwined. That language helps us order our world and also makes sense of it.

The most interesting part is the last:

Lupyan now wants to study how the language we speak influences the ability of certain terms to help us spot images. For instance, breeds might be categorised differently in different languages and might not all become visible when volunteers hear their language’s word for “dog”.

It’s something literary criticism has struggled with before. How is the signified – the object itself – related to the referent – the word? And how does this change across languages and cultures?

There’s an amazing two parter here about how we divided up the colours in our cultures, naming them differently. What is distinctly either blue and green to us might just be purueda in Korean. 

And what fascinates me too is the words that simply can’t be translated, full of the promises and shapes of hidden cultural structures, that have risen to the surface in some of the world’s languages, but not others. My favourite’s iktsuarpok – to keep going to the front door and looking outside to check if someone you’re waiting for is coming down the road.

What we haven’t studied is how this matters. Do you see more vividly, do you notice individual objects more closely, if those colours are separated? Do you care more about certain breeds if you classify them as ‘dog’ over ‘large rabbit’? The Eskimos may not have a hundred words for snow, but the myth that they do has captured our imaginations.

When we carve up and name our world, language matters.

We just don’t know how yet.

What’s In A Name?

doff thy nameMaybe your parents chose it for you. Maybe you chose it for yourself. It’s probably your father’s surname, though I know people who have hyphenated, or a husband’s, or a great-grandmother’s, or even a hippy blend of both their parents’ first names. And your parents picked out your first name, hopefully checking it for potential teasing nicknames and terrible combinations of initials. But your name might have even further-reaching consequences.

There’s a bizarre phenomenon where people’s own surnames guide them towards their career paths. The New Scientist nicknamed this ‘nominative deternism’ after noticing trend in scientists’ names to reflect on their subjects, including a paper on incontinence, written by J W Splatt and D Weedon.* It might also be genetic – that a good baker comes from a long line of ‘Bakers’, who were originally named for their trade. (No comment on the urologists though.)

The Economist even identifies that world leaders are much more likely to have surnames with A-M than the last half of the alphabet.* It might be that the early-letter surnames spend their time sitting alphabetically, at the front of the class, receiving more attention, being asked to speak more often, and learning more. Or that we still see lists as orders of merits – with those at the top, with the earliest surnames, being the best. The same effect is found for fellowships and Nobel Prizes in economics, where names of contributors are cited alphabetically, but not for psychology, where you’re credited according to the size of your contribution.*

People are even more likely to give to a hurricane relief effort if the initial of the hurricane matches that of their name.*

Our names form a crucial part of our identities, something others label us by. How often have you felt more drawn to, or more competitive with, someone who shares your name? And notice how weirdly intimate you feel when a relative stranger keeps calling you by your name all the time: a standard persuasive technique for pushy salespeople or flirty shop assistants.

‘What’s in a name?’ Juliet might have asked, but a Rose by any other name may not be as sweet.

In your prime

older_manI’ve just started reading Lean In and Sheryl Sandberg has a great piece on priming.


Sandberg calls it the ‘stereotype threat’ – that if you suggest a stereotype to people, they are likely to live up to it. So, as boys are stereotyped as better at maths and science than girls, you ask children to tick a gender box on the top of their maths test. The girls then perform worse.* But it’s also an example of social priming.


Here’s another example: students were given words that reminded them of elderly people, such as retirement, wrinkle, forgetful, in an unrelated test then measured secretly as they walked down the corridor. Those primed with elderly words walked more slowly than those primed with neutral (unless you disliked elderly people, and then you walked faster!) Another group were primed with rude and neutral words: those with rude were more likely to interrupt.*


So even the words we use, without being aware of it, change the way we act towards others. Considering how often we’ve filled in our names and dates of birth on the front of tests, how have we quietly primed ourselves to succeed or fail, based off subliminal stereotypes?


Currently, priming is having a moment of crisis, as some studies fail to replicate the original results. (Replication means the ability of an entire study to be done again, or done by other people, to cross-check the results, and is a cornerstone of scientific knowledge.)*


Yet social priming still seems a powerful tool. How can we overturn the implicit stereotypes in our society? And how can we use our primed selves to demonstrate greater empathy, or prime ourselves for more positive traits? 


And if you suddenly feel a little more frail, check the photo at the top of this post again, and wonder if you’ve been primed.


* http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1559-1816.2008.00362.x/abstract

* http://psycnet.apa.org/?&fa=main.doiLanding&doi=10.1037/0022-3514.71.2.230

* http://www.nature.com/news/disputed-results-a-fresh-blow-for-social-psychology-1.12902

My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun

The Japanese symbol 'yu'One thing that’s always fascinated me is the pictorial representation of language.

In English, we don’t really have this. An ‘a’ looks like nothing in particular. The word ‘sun’ has no relationship to the sun we see, or the version we see mentally.

The field of semiotics was partially interested in this – the relationship between the word – the signifier – and the concept of the word – the signified. But occasionally it deals with the referent – the physical object. For instance, is there something inherently rabbit like about a rabbit? And if so, how can the French call it ‘lapin’ or the Spanish ‘conejo’?
The current orthodoxy is that there is no relationship between the word and the object it describes.

But a famous experiment overturns this – it offered participants two shapes – a round, curved shape and a spiky shape – and asked which one was named ‘kiki’ and which was ‘bouba’. In both English and Tamil speakers, 98% selected ‘bouba’ for the rounded shape, ‘kiki’ for the spiky. One explanation might be the sounds the vowels make in your mouth – ‘bouba’ involving a more rounded mouth, while ‘kiki’ requires taut hard shapes.

Onomatopoeic words – that suggest the sound of how they actually sound – are another possible example – see ‘splat’ ‘boom’ ‘squelch’. Other examples might be animal noises – how we have decided that a cat ‘meows’ and a dog ‘woofs’. Though I remember being shocked to find out that in French, a horse goes ‘hiiii’ instead of ‘neigh’.

You can see this in our attempts to form new words over social networking. Saying ‘lol’ may be replacing laughing in real life, but conversely, the abbreviation of ‘casual’ is harder to spell online – ‘cadge’ ‘cas’ ‘cajj’ ?

And, on another note, pictorial languages are especially interesting.

The Japanese symbol yu is part of the Japanese phonetic alphabet, hiragana. But on its own, it means ‘hot water’ – derived from the original natural ‘hot springs’ of the Japanese baths. When I look at this symbol, I remember it by seeing the stick like figure of a man standing in the middle of the swirl of the hot spring pool. Or another example is the Chinese symbol for man, a composite of the symbol for farmland (at the top) and power (at the bottom). A man being someone powerful working on the land. In one symbol, you see a snippet of cultural history, and a small insight into how speakers of that language see the world.