There’s something about Johnny Foreigner

Photo by Flickr user Robert.Nilsson. Click for sourceA 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 “processing fluency,” 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 “Woes unite foes” as a more accurate description of the impact of troubles on adversaries than “Woes unite enemies,” because the rhyming of woes and foes increases processing fluency. Similarly, people judge the statement “Osorno is in Chile” 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.

5 thoughts on “There’s something about Johnny Foreigner”

  1. This suggests to me that anybody speaking with a foreign accent should introduce every proposition with “Brain scans indicate…” thus compensating for their credibility gap.

  2. I also meant to ask whether the subject matter could alter the results. e.g. If a subject matter expert was presenting potential facts in a field that the participants were experts in, does that wash out the result?

  3. So, difficulty in interpreting an accent decreases plausibility? If that’s true, the following might be true:
    * Listening to voice through a thunderstorm or a crackly radio would have the same effect.
    * People who mumble or speak too quickly would be perceived as less trustworthy.
    * The information from the queen of England wouldn’t be trusted if she spoke in Texas.
    All possible, but far more likely there’s just a lot of xenophobia about – including in those who think they’re educated enough to be beyond anything like racism.

  4. Kapitano, I think I forgot to submit my earlier comment where I asked whether there have been similar results for varying volume or static or other auditory qualities of the voice. The concept of ‚Äúprocessing fluency” would seem to imply those results.
    I also wonder if a distraction unrelated to the sense modality of this experiment could increase the level of difficulty of processing fluency and cause the same result.
    You could control for xenophobia by having subjects listen to speakers from the same region.

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