Squaring the Circle: The Cultural Relativity of 'Good' Shape

Roberson, Debi; Davidoff, Jules B. and Shapiro, Laura. 2002. Squaring the Circle: The Cultural Relativity of 'Good' Shape. Journal of Cognition and Culture, 2(1), pp. 29-51. ISSN 15677095 [Article]

PSY_davidoff-shapiro-squaring-circle_2002.pdf - Accepted Version

Download (276kB) | Preview

Abstract or Description

The Gestalt theorists of the early twentieth century proposed a psychological primacy for circles, squares and triangles over other shapes. They described them as 'good' shapes and the Gestalt premise has been widely accepted. Rosch (1973), for example, suggested that shape categories formed around these 'natural' prototypes irrespective of the paucity of shape terms in a language. Rosch found that speakers of a language lacking terms for any geometric shape nevertheless learnt paired-associates to these 'good' shapes more easily than to asymmetric variants. We question these empirical data in the light of the accumulation of recent evidence in other perceptual domains that language affects categorization. A cross-cultural investigation sought to replicate Rosch's findings with the Himba of Northern Namibia who also have no terms in their language for the supposedly basic shapes of circle, square and triangle. A replication of Rosch (1973) found no advantage for these 'good' shapes in the organization of categories. It was concluded that there is no necessary salience for circles, squares and triangles. Indeed, we argue for the opposite because these shapes are rare in nature. The general absence of straight lines and symmetry in the perceptual environment should rather make circles, squares and triangles unusual and, therefore, less likely to be used as prototypes in categorization tasks. We place shape as one of the types of perceptual input (in philosophical terms, 'vague') that is readily susceptible to effects of language variation.

Item Type:


Identification Number (DOI):


Departments, Centres and Research Units:




Item ID:


Date Deposited:

07 Mar 2011 09:35

Last Modified:

29 Apr 2020 15:30

Peer Reviewed:

Yes, this version has been peer-reviewed.



View statistics for this item...

Edit Record Edit Record (login required)