July 28, 2010 -- Igor walks into the employment office and is interviewed by that most unlikely human, a person who has no prejudice against others who are somehow different. But Igor has a heavy accent and his words are hard to understand as he tries to convince the interviewer that he's not the Igor identified in the morning newspaper as the thief who was just released from state prison.
Will he get the job? Not likely, according to new research from the University of Chicago. The interviewer will probably think Igor is lying.
A study by Shiri Lev-Ari, a post doctoral researcher, and Boaz Keysar, a professor of psychology and a specialist on communication, published in the current issue of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, shows that a heavy accent that is difficult to understand will cause others to doubt the truthfulness of whatever the person is saying. The research shows that the more difficult the person is to understand, the less truthful he or she will be judged -- even if the people doing the judging are otherwise open-minded.
"We were looking for a very particular impact of accent on misjudgment that goes beyond the contribution of prejudice," Keysar said in a telephone interview. "Does the difficulty in understanding speech impact judgment?" The researchers aren't suggesting that prejudice doesn't play a key role in how we judge others, but they think they've identified another important contributor.
"We're trying to show that independent of prejudice there is another factor that's going to influence the degree to which you trust people," Lev-Ari added. "There's a problem with prejudice in society, but even if you're not prejudiced, you're still going to be biased because of other reasons," specifically, in this case, the difficulty in understanding someone with a heavy accent.
The researchers conducted two experiments involving 55 English-speaking Americans who listened to recordings of nine speakers reading trivia statements such as "A giraffe can go without water longer than a camel can."
To reduce the role of prejudice, the participants were told that the statements were originated by the experimenters, not the speakers, so the speakers were really just reading a prepared text. The speakers were not even told whether the statements were true or false.
Three of the speakers were English speaking Americans; three were mildly accented (Polish, Turkish and Austrian-German); and three were heavily accented (Korean, Turkish and Italian.)
"As predicted, accented speech was rated as less truthful than native speech," the researchers reported. The more difficult it was to understand, the lower the "truthfulness rating." The difference was not giant: 7.5 on a truthfulness scale for the Americans, 6.95 for those with a mild accent, and 6.84 for the heavy accents. But it was judged significant by the experimenters.
Foreign Accents: Does One Mean You're a Liar?
The second experiment was designed to see if participants could be less sensitive to a heavy accent if they were told they were being tested to see if accents undermine credibility. So the first participants were deceived into believing the experiment would test their knowledge. But the second group knew the real purpose was to determine "the effect of the difficulty of understanding speakers' speech on the likelihood that their statements would be believed."
If prejudice is the primary factor the results of both experiments should be the same, Lev-Ari said. But they weren't.
In the second experiment, speakers with a mild accent were rated almost exactly the same as speakers with no accent. But those with a heavy accent were judged considerably less truthful because they were harder to understand.
"If it was just about prejudice, there shouldn't be a reason for differences (between the two experiments,)" Lev-Ari said. Prejudice is deeply seated and not easily dispatched by the introduction of one new fact.
"The only thing that has changed is their awareness of the fact that if the accent is difficult to understand it might influence their judgment," she said. And it did. Mild accents didn't suffer, but heavy accents did, and that's because they were harder to understand, she said.
"Accents might reduce the credibility of non-native job seekers," the researchers conclude, so Igor probably should aspire to becoming something other than a television anchor since nobody can understand him. But he will probably have problems on many fronts, and not just because of prejudice, which will also be there.
"As we showed, such insidious impact of accent is even apparent when the non-native speaker is merely a messenger. Most likely, neither the native nor the non-native speakers are aware of this, making the difficulty of understanding accented speech an ever present reason for perceiving non-native speakers as less credible."
Foreign Accents: Does One Mean You're a Liar?
Incidentally, few of the participants in the two experiments could identify the country that the various accents came from, and that didn't surprise either of the researchers, both of whom are from Israel and have very mild accents.
"I know my accent is never correctly recognized, so I wasn't surprised that people couldn't recognize others," Lev-Ari said.
And one last thing. Can a giraffe go without water longer than a camel can? Yes. Bet you didn't know that.