Confusion, rather than prejudice, may lie at the root of the suspicion many people feel towards foreigners. A new study by the University of Chicago suggests that when accents make people less certain about what an individual is saying, they may transfer that uncertainty onto the statement itself, deciding that the statement is less credible. As a result, many people equate accents with a lack of trustworthiness.
Previous research had shown that listeners find statements that are delivered in an accent less believable. This effect increases as accents become thicker. The new evidence lends further support to these findings and take them a step further. It appears that participants in the recent study made an association between how easily they could understand a speaker and how credible the speaker was. Because accents make understanding more difficult, they make non-native speakers appear less truthful.
These findings are particularly relevant in today’s world, where millions of people live and work in countries where their own native language is not dominant. Accents may affect the way people interact with foreign employees, customer service representatives or health-care providers.
As unfortunate and unfair that it is, from a psychological standpoint it makes sense that accents would play a role when people decide who is credible and who is not. Accent is not only a clear indication that the speaker came from a different culture. Accents can make people feel uncertain about what a non-native speaker is trying to say. Distrust often follows on the heels of uncertainty.
As part of the study, published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, native and non-native English speakers were told to deliver lines that expressed neutral trivia-style facts. Participants were told that the speakers were merely delivering lines. Yet they were still more likely to rate the statements as untrue if they were spoken by an individual with an accent.
The problem lies in the natural tendency humans have to associate one thing with another. When people have a harder time understanding statements made in an accent, they misinterpret the difficulty understanding as an indicator that a statement is problematic in terms of credibility.
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