The Truth Behind Thick Accents: Foreigners Judged Less Truthful

Is that guy with the Russian accent automatically lying?

ByABC News
June 29, 2010, 5:29 PM

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.