December 11, 2019

Grooving: Kiki and Bouba Minds

Imagine that the two drawings below are called Kiki and Bouba in some alien language.  If you had to guess which one was Kiki and which one was Bouba - without any other information, which one would be Kiki, and which one would be Bouba?  

If you are like most people, the sharp angular shape (on the left) would be named Kiki while the curvier rounded shape (on the right) would be named Bouba.

 This effect is called the Bouba/Kiki effect which highlights how we map sounds to visual shapes and was first observed by Wolfgang Kohler in the late 1920s and then refined in the early 2000s by Vilayanure Ramachandran and Edward Hubbard.   In experiments, over 95% of respondents selected the curvy shape as Bouba and the jagged one as Kiki.  The effect shows that words that have softer, rounded sounds (i.e., oo’s and ah’s) are associated with rounder shapes, while sounds that have more angular, sharp sounds (i.e., k’s and I’s) are associated with more pointed shapes. 

While this effect focused on speech and visuals, my colleague and co-host of Behavioral Grooves, Tim Houlihan and I have started to use it as a way to describe how we think. 

Some of us think with a “Kiki” like a brain.  Others of us think with a “Bouba” like a brain. 

While not perfect, it does help in understanding the differences in how our brains process, retain, and regurgitate information.  For instance, a “Kiki brain” is precise and sharp and can remember specific names, dates, and titles.  While a more “Bouba brain” retains information about the general concepts and impacts but is less precise and more holistic in the combination of ideas and thoughts.  

So while Tim can typically recall the name of a behavioral science study, the year it was published, and the author(s) (very much a Kiki brain), Kurt can usually only recall the concept that the study explored, how that concept can be applied, and how it interacts with other behavioral science concepts (more of a Bouba brain).   

Often times during the podcast, my Bouba mind will be at a loss for the name of a study or a particular researcher, however, Tim’s Kiki brain will have those names readily available.  On the other side of the coin, Tim will be reciting a specific study and my Bouba brain will instantly go to the nuances of the application of how this works and implications for the people involved. 

Of course, like most other ways of describing ourselves, this is not an either/or situation.  I would argue that we all have aspects of Kiki thinking AND Bouba thinking depending on the topic, situation, and other factors (i.e., how much sleep we had the night before).  And no brain is just Kiki or Bouba – we shift between the two on a regular basis.  Like personalities, these descriptions are just the tendencies for the way we think.  For instance, I’m not always at a loss for remembering a study name or researcher nor do I not understand the subtleties or connections from those studies that I do remember. 

We fluctuate on a continuum and we often move easily between the thinking styles. 

In general, my notion is that Kiki brains are more admired.  Those are the people that I don’t like getting into debates with, because they will bring in facts and figures and names at lightning speed and I’m just trying to stay up and connect the dots.   I need to be on my phone looking up references and facts, while they are seemingly pulling them out of the air.  People with KikI brains come across as smarter and more informed – because they can recall these details whereas people with Bouba brains are left talking about the general proposition. 

Kiki brains are not fumbling to remember people’s names, the exact figure for the organization’s budget or the year that the Challenger exploded. 

At this point, there is no research that is on this or supports this crazy theory.  However, by naming these types of thinking styles, I think we can better interact with each other and contribute to our work.  The power of this is in helping us understand how we communicate with others and understanding how we process and remember information.    



Image:  Monochrome version 1 June 2007 by Bendž Vectorized with Inkscape 

Maurer, Pathman, and Modloch (2006), The shape of Boubas: sound-shape correspondences in toddlers and adults.  Developmental Science.

Ramachandran, V.S. & Hubbard, E.M. (2001). "Synaesthesia: A window into perception, thought and language" (PDF). Journal of Consciousness Studies.


© 2019 Behavioral Grooves

Cristina Bicchieri, PhD is the S. J. Patterson Harvie Professor of Social Thought and Comparative Ethics, a Professor of Philosophy and Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, a Professor of Legal Studies at the Wharton School, the Head of the Behavioral Ethics Lab, the Director of the Philosophy, Politics, and Economics Program, and is the Faculty Director of the Master of Behavioral and Decision Sciences Program at the University of Pennsylvania. She’s one busy woman! We met up with her at the NoBeC (Norms and Behavioral Change) conference that her program sponsored in the Kislak Center at UPenn.

Cristina’s program is in its 3rd year and hosts 75 students from 12 different countries. The unique program emphasizes practical applications of behavioral science and cross-disciplinary work. Students come from celebrity restaurants, tech businesses, NGOs, non-profits and global corporations and find the program engaging because of its diversity. If you’re interested, we encourage you to check it out – there are links in the episode notes for how to reach them.

We had some recording issues when we were talking to Christina. Some edits were made to accommodate our gaffs and we hope you won’t mind. And, because we recorded it on the sidelines of a conference, you might hear some background noise occasionally. 

© 2019 Behavioral Grooves



Cristina Bicchieri, PhD:

The Grammar of Society:

Norms in the Wild:

Master in a Behavioral Decision Science at UPenn:

Decision Theory:

Game Theory:

Epistemic Foundations of Game Theory:

Multiple Equilibria:

David Kreps, PhD:

Social Norms:

Conditional Preference:


Gates Foundation:

Reference Network:

Soap Opera:

Well Told Story:


Musical Links

Giuseppe Verdi:

Wolfgang Mozart:

Bruce Springsteen:



The Band:



Fleetwood Mac:


Kurt Nelson:

Tim Houlihan:

December 5, 2019

Grooving: 2019 Reading List

Kurt and Tim like to read about behavioral science and a variety of related fields. To help those interested in the subject, but unsure how to pick good books to either get started or advance their learning, our 2019 Top 10 Reading List should help. Our Top 10 list is really a Top 9, since both Kurt and Tim already had one of the books on both of their lists. But we also go beyond that list with some honorable mentions (that could have easily been swapped for some of our top choices), as well as a shortlist of fiction and poetry for your review.

We hope you enjoy this year’s list and encourage you to let us know your thoughts about it. Did we nail the top picks? Did we miss some? What’s on your reading list for 2020? Who do you think should be a guest on Behavioral Grooves in 2020? Let us know. We’d love to hear from you.

Do you need some Christmas or Birthday gifts?  Or maybe you just want to treat yourself?   Here are links to the books we mentioned in the episode!  

Kurt’s Best Non-Fiction Books

John Bargh, “Before You Know It" 

Yuval Noah Harari, “Sapiens” 

Michael Mauboussin, “Think Twice” 

Wendy Wood, “Good Habits, Bad Habits” 


Tim’s Best Non-Fiction Books

Rory Sutherland, “Alchemy” 

Franz de Waal, “Mama’s Last Hug” 

Francesca Gino, “Rebel Talent” 

Roger Dooley, “Friction” (on Kurt’s AND Tim’s lists) 

Alan B. Krueger, “Rockonomics” 


Honorable Mentions

Honorable mentions for really great books that you should be aware of. Virtually any of these could have made our Top 10 list. 

Nir Eyal, “Indistractable" 

Daniel Pink, “When”

Daniel Levitin, “The Organized Mind”

Liliana Mason, “Uncivil Agreement” 

Tali Sharot, “The Influential Mind” 


And since we have had great guests with great books in 2019 (we love them and their work), we want to refer you to these authors and titles:

Brian Ahearn, “Influence PEOPLE: Powerful Everyday Opportunities to Persuade that are Lasting and Ethical” 

Ori Brafman, “The Spider and the Starfish" 

Liz Fosslein, “No Hard Feelings” 

Will Leach, “Marketing to Mindstates”

Stephen Martin & Joseph Marks, “Messengers” 

Amit Sood, “Guide to Stress-Free Living”


Tim’s Non-Fiction List

We didn’t speak to these on the podcast, because we were most interested in addressing behavioral science books. However, Tim is also an avid reader of fiction and poetry. Tim wanted to mention some books he’s read (or re-read) this year that were particularly rewarding.

Madeline Miller, “Circe”

John Updike, “Rabbit is Rich” 

David Whyte, “Everything is Waiting for You”


Thank you!  


© 2019 Behavioral Grooves.  Note that we may receive commissions when you click our links and make purchases. However, this does not impact our suggestions, thoughts or ideas. All recommendations are made by Kurt and Tim based on what they believe.

This is Behavioral Grooves’ 100th episode!

Who would have thought when we started out two years ago without a clue about HOW to produce and publish a podcast that we’d reach this milestone?  Our first podcast recording began with a very willing Dr. James Heyman, a computer with some recording software, and a dinky little microphone before a meetup we were doing that night. But the conversation was terrific, and we launched it with excitement. Today, we are more thoughtful, have better equipment, and continue to have great guests.

For our 100th Episode, we traveled to Philadelphia to host Annie Duke, Jeff Kreisler and Dr. Michael Hallsworth in front of a live audience at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. A little about each of them…

This episode covers decision making in an uncertain world with these three renowned experts. We talk about biases and hacks to deal with those biases. And we dove into the role that context plays in our decision making.

After the live event, Kurt and Tim groove on some of the highlights of the discussion. Following that, Tim shares a recap in the Bonus Track portion of the episode.



Michael Hallsworth, PhD is the Managing Director of the Behavioural Insights Team in North America, based in Brooklyn, New York. He has also worked on health and taxes in the Cabinet Office of the UK government and has authored behavior change frameworks including MINDSPACE and EAST.

Annie Duke is the author of Thinking in Bets: Making Smarter Decisions When You Don’t Have All the Facts, which quickly became a national bestseller. At one point in her career, she was a professional card player, where she won millions in tournament poker. And she is the co-founder of The Alliance for Decision Education, a non-profit whose mission is to improve lives by empowering students through decision skills education.

Jeff Kreisler is a Princeton-educated lawyer who became a comedian, then an author, and then a total advocate for behavioral science. With his co-author, Dan Ariely, they wrote Dollars and Sense: How We Misthink Money and How to Spend it Smarter.


Sponsors and Recognition

It is important to note our sponsors. Podbean, who has been hosting us since the very first episode, supported our endeavor and helped us live stream our event to listeners all over the world.

We are very grateful to PeopleScience, an organization that supports the application of behavioral sciences with special emphasis on the world of rewards and recognition. PeopleScience is a terrific resource for job postings and original authorship. And, most importantly, PeopleScience is doing something that we love: they are bringing more science to the world of work.

Special thanks go to a few of our peeps, too. Ben Granlund and Raya Parks helped us prepare for and execute the event. Chris Nave and Eugen Dimant at UPenn sent their masters students to the hall after a very long day of lectures. And Trey Altemose managed all of the people and technical issues as our stage manager. Your best friend at any live event is your stage manager and Trey guided us at every turn. 

© 2019 Behavioral Grooves



Annie Duke:

Jeff Kreisler:

Michael Hallsworth, PhD:



100-Year-Old Scotch:

Overconfidence bias:

Imposter Syndrome:

Motivated Reasoning:

Blind Spot Bias (The Bias Bias):

Base Rates:

Illusion of Control:

Human Operating Systems:

Choice Architecture:



Backfire Effect:

Jay Van Bavel:

Chris Nave, PhD:

Eugen Dimant, PhD:

Cristina Bicchieri, PhD:

Jim Guszcza, PhD:

Alex Blau:

Alex Imas, PhD:

Koen Smets:

Motown Records:

Soul Train:



Musical Links:

The Five Stairsteps, “Ooh, Child, Things Are Gonna Get Easier”:

Big Thief:

Yo La Tengo:

Bon Iver:

Joni Mitchell:

Queen, “Bohemian Rhapsody”:

Violent Femmes:

White Stripes:

Cake, “I Will Survive”:

Gloria Gaynor, “I Will Survive”:

Eagles, “Hotel California”:

Berry Gordy:



O’Jays, “Love Train”:

Masonboro Sound, “Love Train”:

The Spinners:

Hall & Oats:

Katy Milkman is no ordinary behavioral scientist. She’s a Professor of Operations, Information and Decisions at Wharton and has a secondary faculty appointment in the University of Pennsylvania’s Medical School in the Department of Medical Ethics and Health Policy. She’s Co-Director, with Angela Duckworth, at the non-profit Behavior Change for Good Initiative. She’s the host of one of our favorite podcasts, called Choiceology, she is in the middle of writing a book, and she’s a Mom and Partner all at the same time.

We are grateful to her for taking time to record a conversation with us about her work on temptation bundling, the sorts of projects she’s getting at the Behavior Change for Good organization, and a few tidbits about what her book, coming out in 2021, will have in store for the readers.

Most importantly, Katy shared three important pieces of wisdom about behavior change during our conversation: 1. Behavior change is hard – cut yourself some slack. 2. We humans are not built to do the right thing all the time.  3. Just keep trying.

Stay tuned for our BONUS TRACK at the end where we review key takeaways and offer up a Groove idea for the week!

 (C) 2019 Behavioral Grooves


Katy Milkman, PhD:

Katy Milkman – Twitter: @katy_milkman

Behavior Change for Good:

Choiceology podcast:

Temptation Bundling:

Fresh Start Effect:

Charles Duhigg:

BJ Fogg Maui Habit:

Robert Cialdini, PhD:

Francesca Gino, PhD:

Angela Duckworth, PhD:


Kurt Nelson:

Tim Houlihan:


Musical Links

Michael Jackson:

Taylor Swift:

Chris Nave, PhD is the Associate Director of the Master of Behavioral and Decision Sciences Program at the University of Pennsylvania. We caught up with Chris at the NoBeC conference (Norms and Behavioral Change Conference) at UPenn. NoBeC brought together some of the brightest researchers in the field and we got to attend!

The Master of Behavioral and Decision Sciences program is in its 3rd year with 75 students from 12 countries. The students come from jobs in restaurants, fire stations, small businesses, and global corporations and they intend to leave UPenn with an understanding of what it means to be a behavioral scientist, but not actually BE one.

We met Chris through our friend, Jeff Kreisler, and we instantly connected as members of the same tribe. But it was even cooler when Chris invited us to attend the conference and to record conversations with some of the researchers.

This episode is the cornerstone of the series we recorded at the University of Pennsylvania and we are excited to share an over of the master’s program from Chris Nave.



Chris Nave:

UPenn Masters of Behavioral Change Program:

Piyush Tantia:


Musical Links

Baby Shark:

The Cure:

Red Hot Chili Peppers “Dark Necessity”:

Miley Cyrus “Party in the USA”:


Vivaldi “Four Seasons”:

Chris Brown is in human risk management and practice is set in backcountry snow. He grew up outside of Philadelphia and after graduating with a degree in Urban Design/Architecture, he moved to Utah to pursue certification with the AMGA (American Mountain Guides Association) in avalanche training. 

Chris works as a ski guide and avalanche/snow science professional, but his real job is helping skiers overcome their biases. He incorporates the work of Kahneman and Tversky, Richard Thaler and other great researchers into his classes and we found his intentionality in decision making noteworthy.

We had a great conversation with Chris and we also want to express our gratitude to friend and colleague, Ben Granlund, for connecting us with Chris. Ben attended one of Chris’ classes and found it so engaging that he referred us to Chris. Ben was also delighted that Chris relies heavily on behavioral science and reminds us that the biggest threat to your life in avalanche country is your own decision making.

After our recording stopped, we discussed Guide Services for training. If you are interested, check out AMGA ( and the American Avalanche Association:



Chris Brown Email: 

Chris Brown Instagram: 

Ian McCammon:

Phil Tetlock “Super Forecasters”:

Familiarity Bias:

Expert Halo:

System 1 / System 2:,_Fast_and_Slow


Bruce Tremper:

Bayesian Decision Making:

First Tracks:

Laurence Gonzales “Deep Survival”:

Wicked Learning Environments:

Daniel Kahneman:

The Tao of Wu:


Kurt Nelson: @motivationguru

Tim Houlihan: @THoulihan


Musical Links

Hip Hop:


Classical Music:

Death Metal:

Steel Pulse:

Wu Tang Clan:


Gang Starr:

John Coltrane:

Marcus Miller:

Stanley Clarke:

Bela Fleck:

Victor Wooten:

Herbie Hancock:

Sometimes things just go better in twos and that was the case regarding our guests for this episode. Zarak Kahn is the Behavioral Innovation Director at Maritz and Erik Johnson is an independent Behavioral Science Consultant. They are the co-hosts of Action Design Radio and board members at Action Design Network. Kurt and Tim have known them as coaches and colleagues and wanted to talk to them about all of that.

We discussed how the application of behavioral science continues to grow in both the corporate and policy words. Today, there are more jobs, more workshops, more bachelor's programs, more masters programs, more PhD programs, more meetups and more bootcamps than ever before. We expressed our collective desires to make behavioral science so easy to do it will be ingrained into every job from UX to Marketing to HR, and how we’d like to see people applying a behavioral lens in all of their decision-making.

In our grooving session, Kurt and Tim emphasized the importance of expanding the community of people applying behavioral science and we are grateful to share the mantle with very bright and fine folk like Erik and Zarak.



Erik Johnson Twitter: 

Erik Johnson LinkedIn: 

Erik Johnson Website: 

Zarak Kahn LinkedIn:

Action Design Network:

Action Design Radio (podcast):

Robert Cialdini:

Dan Kahneman:

Richard Thaler:

Cass Sunstein:


Musical Links


Local Natives:

Lana Del Rey:

Carley Rae Jepson:

Wye Oak “The Louder I Call the Faster it Runs”:

Sylvan Esso:

Johnny Flynn:

Sharon Van Etten:

Gillian Welch:

M Ward:

The National:

Victoria Shaffer is a researcher and professor at the University of Missouri. Victoria focuses on applying decision psychology and behavioral economics to medical decision making. In particular, she is researching judgment and decision making and how they impact the design of patient decision support tools.

Tim and Victoria met working on a field research project with Dan Ariely, PhD because of her work on non-monetary rewards with Scott Jeffrey, PhD. She was pushing back on common sense preferences, such as money is the best motivator, just as she is today with her work in the medical field.

Our conversation with Victoria began on familiar ground: the preference for cash as a reward and how it’s actually less effective than non-monetary rewards in incentive schemes. But we soon turned to the very personal journey of how she and her mother dealt with decisions surrounding her father’s diagnosis with cancer. Her personal journey became the foundation for important research to help patients, their loved ones and the caregivers communicate more effectively through stories. 

It’s a fascinating discussion and we hope you enjoy it. 



Victoria Shaffer:

Shelly Taylor on Biases and Mental Health:

Hal Arkes:

Decision Support Tools:

“Being Mortal” by Atul Gawande:

MD Anderson Cancer Center:

Advance Directives:

Palliative Care:

Peter Ubel – Duke:

Affective Forecasting Errors:

Columbia Records:

Dan Gilbert:


Kurt Nelson, PhD:

Tim Houlihan:



Van Halen:

Black Sabbath:

Ozzy Osbourne:


Depeche Mode:

The Cure:

Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young:

James Taylor:

Kurt and Tim were invited to attend the Norms and Behavioral Change (NoBeC) workshop at the University of Pennsylvania on October 17 and 18, 2019, and what we experienced blew us away. We were impressed with a terrific diversity of academic fields studying social norms, the great work they are doing, and the generosity of the community (at UPenn as well as the behavioral science researchers from around the world).

This gathering was very different from industry assemblies we’ve attended, which in and of itself was not a surprise. However, there were three noteworthy differences. First, the lineup of speakers was heavily weighted toward researchers with findings on projects involving social norms. Second, academic audience members held speakers accountable for rigorous processes and the descriptions of their results. Lastly, the Q&A at the end of each presentation was filled with animated questions from economists, behavioral economists, sociologists, political scientists, philosophers, strategists, law professors, and of course, psychologists. The cross-disciplinary aspect of this group reinforced the need for more diverse thinking in the business world.

We came away with a greater appreciation of the role that social norms play in our behaviors and decision making as well as the tremendous research that’s being conducted on related topics.

We will be publishing our series of interviews with researchers from the workshop in the coming weeks, and we hope you enjoy them as much as we did.



University of Pennsylvania Master of Behavioral and Decision Sciences:

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