A new study just published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology has found that we are less likely to believe something told to us in a foreign accent because the difficulty of adjusting to the voice unconsciously undermines the speaker’s credibility.
The research was completed by the suspiciously foreign sounding psychologists Shiri Lev-Ari and Boaz Keysar, both from the University of Chicago, who wanted to separate out the effects of deliberate prejudice about the source from the unconscious effects of ease of understanding.
Their study involved participants listening to potential facts (e.g. “Ants don’t sleep”; “A giraffe can go without water longer than a camel can”) which were read out by people with native accents, mild foreign accents or heavy foreign accents, from a variety of countries, after which the listeners were asked to indicate how much they believed the statement.
Importantly, the statements were written out and handed to the readers by a native speaker, so the new information came from a fellow countryman, avoiding any deliberate bias the listeners might have about the source of the information.
The results were clear: statements read out by people with a foreign accent, mild or heavy, were significantly less likely to be believed that those read by a native speaker.
In a second experiment, the researchers informed the participants that the study was investigating the effect of accent on the believability of new information to see if the listeners could eliminate their biases.
It turns out they could for people with a mild foreign accent, but statements read out in a thick foreign were still rated as significantly less true – suggesting that we don’t have full conscious control over our credibility weakening biases.
Although never before demonstrated with accents, this sort of effect is well-known in the psychological literature as the ease of which we can make sense of something is known to be linked to a tendency to view it in a positive light.
The authors discuss the previous studies in this excerpt from the scientific paper (from which I’ve removed the references to make it easier to read and more truthful):
We propose that people believe non-native speakers less, simply because they are harder to understand. In general, the ease of processing stimuli, or ‚Äúprocessing fluency,‚Äù affects the way stimuli are judged. Stimuli that are easier to process are perceived, among other things, as more familiar, more pleasant, visually clearer, longer and more recent, louder, less risky, and more truthful.
For example, people judge ‚ÄúWoes unite foes‚Äù as a more accurate description of the impact of troubles on adversaries than ‚ÄúWoes unite enemies,‚Äù because the rhyming of woes and foes increases processing fluency. Similarly, people judge the statement ‚ÄúOsorno is in Chile‚Äù as more true when the color of the font makes it easier to read.
As someone living in another country, this would be a significant worry if it wasn’t for the fact that, as anyone has seen my dancing will testify, I usually undermine my own credibility way before I get the chance to open my mouth.
Link to DOI entry and study summary.