Hear Me Out: Accent Bias

Podcast

Voices are more than just sounds; they’re auditory “faces” that can give clues to who we are. But are these clues always accurate? How might accents skew our decision-making?

Transcript

NARRATOR: We care about the truth. And we should.  Knowing how to separate fact from fiction is crucial to making good decisions.  The million-dollar question is: how do we do it?

For me, it often feels like I just know the truth when I see it, or hear it. So let’s put this to the test: “Sharks existed at least 10 million years before trees did.”  What do you think? Is this true?

Now, here are some other statements read by different people; after each one, decide for yourself: “True” or “False”.

SOUTHERN ACCENT, FEMALE: “On Saturn, it rains diamonds.”

INDIAN ACCENT, MALE: “Babies don’t dream.”

BRAZILIAN ACCENT, FEMALE: “Human blood contains gold.”

GERMAN ACCENT, MALE: “The national animal of Scotland is the unicorn.”

BRITISH ACCENT, MALE: “Hair and fingernails keep growing awhile after we die.”

NARRATOR: How did you decide?

The first thing you probably did was just try to remember: what do you know about fossils, or space, or Scotland? What have you read about the dream-worlds of children, or the elements composing the human body?

But your mind was also doing something else, without you knowing. It was analyzing things that had nothing to do with the statements you heard, and a lot to do with who said them: Who is this person? Does she sound smart? Can I trust him? And to find clues to these questions, one of the things your brain likely attended was the voice. You see, voices aren’t just sounds. They’re auditory faces. And like the face, they can give us clues to things like age, gender, and emotion. They can also result in impressions that are just… wrong.

SOUTHERN ACCENT, FEMALE: “On Saturn, it rains diamonds.”
Did you think this was true? What does credibility sound like?

STANDARD AMERICAN ACCENT, MALE: “On Saturn, it rains diamonds.”

MINNESOTA ACCENT, FEMALE: “On Saturn, it rains diamonds.”

BRITISH ACCENT, FEMALE: “On Saturn, it rains diamonds.”

NARRATOR: Today’s podcast is about accents. What we think they tell us, what they actually tell us, and why we need to care. Welcome to Outsmarting Human Minds.

There are certain sounds we recognize from the moment we’re born. A heartbeat, the stories and music we heard in the womb, a mother’s voice … and a familiar accent.

At just 5 months old, infants will look more at someone who speaks with the native accent than a foreign one. This is preference. By 10 months, preference turns into trust: babies reach more for toys that are offered by someone with a familiar accent than someone who sounds like a stranger. And Psychologist Katherine Kinzler at Cornell University found that if you ask a preschooler who they want to be friends with, they’ll choose the person who sounds like them, over the person who looks like them. That is, at least when we’re young: accent trumps race.

But by the time we turn 9 or 10, something shifts. Accents start to take on other values. Smart. Dumb. Nice. Mean. A 5 year-old may tell you he wants to be friends with someone who sounds like him… but research shows that a 10 year-old can now tell you that someone with a Southern accent is nicer, but that someone with a Northern accent is smarter. Even if that 10 year-old is from the South!

That’s where logic breaks down: of course, people who live in different places will develop different accents; but: is a regional accent a useful cue to the IQ of an entire population? Of course not! So why do we think this?

The simple answer is learning: learning about social groups and the qualities of these groups. We don’t even have to try. We learn stereotypes from all kinds of things: from children’s movies and cartoons, where villains consistently have non-American accents, ; from jokes, news stories, and the voices we hear on public radio. Over time, these associations take root; they automatically come to mind — even when the stereotypes are about our own group.

EMILEE HACKNEY: Do Southerners really belong up here? I know that they do, but I think, well why don’t I hear it up here? Is it because people assume it’s unintelligent, do people suppress it because they think others think that they’re unintelligent because they have that accent? And it makes me question my own intelligence sometimes. I hate that it does.

NARRATOR: This is Emilee Hackney. She’s —

EMILEE HACKNEY: — from Tazewell, Virginia. It borders West Virginia and it’s about an hour from Kentucky and about an hour from Tennessee.

NARRATOR: She now spends most of her time in Massachusetts, as a rising senior at Harvard University. As we were developing this podcast, we came across an article Emilee wrote for the student newspaper. In it, Emilee writes about the fact that she’s only heard one other Southern accent on campus… and how she briefly tried to suppress her own to fit in:

EMILEE HACKNEY: I tried! I really did try. It just came out sounding so strange in my mouth, and, I don’t know, I feel so pretentious when I do it.

NARRATOR: When I first heard this, I thought “What? Nearly 20% of Harvard’s undergraduate population comes from the South. Is it really possible that so many people could be doing this?” But as I read more about accents, I realized how common a story this was.

Recently, I listened as a managing director of a Fortune 500 company spoke about her Hispanic accent. She said she had lost count of how many times she had interviewed for positions and watched her interviewer decide she was, quote, “dumb” as soon as she started to speak. Newscasters of color have been told to “lose the accent” if they hope to make a career in broadcasting. And entire industries exist to train everyone from actors to call center employees to get rid of their accents.

Whether we’re aware of it or not, the accents we hear do influence our judgments. It can happen all the time: Do I trust this medical diagnosis, or seek a second opinion? Is this business pitch worth investing in? Does this eyewitness seem reliable? Research suggests that, in part, the answer to all these questions is: well, what do they sound like?

The data on accent bias are strong. A review conducted in 2012 looked at over 100 analyses across 20 studies. The overall takeaway was clear: people who speak with the standard accent (that is: the one spoken by the majority or the socially advantaged group) – they’re seen as more intelligent, high-status, competent, and credible than those with accents that are not standard.

In these experiments, the only thing changing is the accent. Researchers made sure the actual words people said were exactly the same. But, time and again, the data show that that’s enough to sway our evaluations:  studies conducted in England and Denmark show that after listening to a police interrogation tape, people think that a suspect is more guilty if he has a regional rather than the standard accent.  And around the world, job applicants are rated as more hirable, more competent when they speak with the standard accent.

Clearly, how something is said is overpowering the ideas, knowledge, and experience being expressed. And it’s changing the way we make important decisions about people.

So who should change? Should it be the job of the individual to change their accent to fit in? Or, should the hiring manager or the admissions officer find ways to go beyond the accent, and change how they hear? In 2014, the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee stirred up controversy when it launched (and then quickly canceled) accent reduction courses. Stories like this seem to suggest that right now, our society does believe that it’s up to us, the listeners, to improve our decision-making by adjusting our minds — that having others change their accent doesn’t make sense. Because here’s the thing: our world is growing evermore connected. Interacting, collaborating with, and making decisions about voices that are different from ours is a reality. So what can we do to outsmart our minds?

One idea is to create new associations for the voices you’ll hear. When you hear a foreign accent, think to yourself: “This person knows stuff that I don’t know” or “Without this person, I’m stumped. I can’t solve the problem before me”. Repeating this until it’s overlearned can help you achieve the outcomes that are in your interest.

Next, ask yourself: “what’s the content here?” and find ways to set aside how it’s packaged. For instance:

Take notes. This will help keep your focus on the message. Refer back to these as you make decisions, rather than relying on your memory of what was said.

And when gauging someone’s competence or hirability, look for concrete data. What are the sales numbers, the years of experience? What did the person actually achieve? This will help you attend to content over style.

Lastly – it’s worth reminding ourselves that no matter where we grew up, we all have accents! I once read a BBC article where employees at a call center in the Philippines were asked, “What’s the hardest part of the job?”. Their answer?: training themselves to understand the dozens of different accents of the people calling in! This gave me a new perspective; I may come across one new accent when I call in for support – but that person may have to navigate hundreds each day!

So run through these the next time you meet, interview, or interact with someone who sounds not-like you. Because if we want to trust the right people…

BRITISH ACCENT, FEMALE: …find the best talent…

STANDARD AMERICAN ACCENT, MALE: …and come across the best solutions…

BRAZILIAN ACCENT, MALE: …accent is a silly thing to filter by.

NARRATOR: Outsmarting Human Minds is a program founded by Mahzarin Banaji, devoted to improving decision-making using insights from psychological science. Support for this episode was provided by PwC and Harvard University. This episode was developed by Olivia Kang and Mahzarin Banaji, and featured Emilee Hackney.. Special thanks to the Bok Center’s Learning Lab Studio at Harvard University. Sound editing and mixing was done by Evan Younger Music was composed by Miracles of Modern Science. For references and related materials, go to outsmartinghumanminds.org.

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11 million people in France say they’ve been the subject of discrimination due to their accent. A November 2020 legislation seeks to change that statistic – accent discrimination is now criminalized in France with up to three years’ jail time and a fine of up to 45,000 Euros. Learn more about the legislation at The Guardian.

If you watch The Simpsons, you’ll know Apu Nahasapeemapetilon: the thick-accented Indian proprietor of the Springfield’s Kwik-E-Mart voiced by non-Indian actor Hank Azaria. The recent outcry regarding the character shows that what used to be considered funny 30 years ago, isn’t anymore. Watch the trailer for Hari Kondabolu’s documentary The Problem with Apu and read Matthew Haag’s New York Times article to learn more.

“Different hosts with different voices tell different kinds of stories. And vocal styles communicate important dimensions of human experience. What are we missing out on by not hearing the full range of those voices?” Listen to Chenjerai Kumanyika on “Challenging The Whiteness of Public Radio” (NPR’s All Things Considered).

“Now, algorithms are deciding whom to hire, based on voice.” The claim, in this episode of NPR’s All Things Considered, is that algorithms are neutral, and do not rely on things like age, race, gender or sexual orientation. But is this true? As organizations begin to rely on automated methods of evaluating candidates, it’s worth asking: what do we infer from the voice, and how might biases be baked into technology and possibly reduce the quality of our decisions?

Do accents make us sound smarter? Further explore this question with the BBC’s Chi Luu.

“Words leisurely unfold out of my mouth. They glide off my tongue with the smooth ebb and flow of the rolling blue Appalachian mountains I grew up on; the drawling vowels stretch long like valleys and consonants tumble down sloping ridgelines into reluctant contractions … I knew the North didn’t hear many voices like mine. What I did not know, or rather, expect, was how my distinct accent would become my identifier” From Emilee Hackney’s article in The Harvard Crimson: Y’all and Drawl.

References

Calderon, J. (2016, March 18). Inside the secret world of accent training. BBC Capital, Retrieved from: http://www.bbc.com/capital/story/20160317-inside-the-secret-world-of-accent-training.

Cooper, R. P. & Aslin, R. N. (1989). The language environment of the young infant: Implications for early perceptual development. Canadian Journal of Psychology, 43(2), 247.

DeCasper, A. J. & Fifer, W. P. (1980). Of human bonding: Newborns prefer their mothers’ voices. Science, 208(4448), 1174-1176.

DeCasper, A. J. & Spence, M. J. (1986). Prenatal maternal speech influences newborns’ perception of speech sounds. Infant Behavior and Development 9(2), 133-150.

Delitsky, M. L. & Baines, K. H. (2013). Diamond and other forms of elemental carbon in Saturn’s deep atmosphere. In AAS/Division for Planetary Sciences Meeting Abstracts, 45.

Dixon, J. A., Mahoney, B., & Cocks, R. (2002): Accents of guilt? Effects of regional accent, race, and crime type on attributions of guilt. Journal of Language and Social Psychology, 21(2), 162-168.

Dobrow, J. R. & Gidney, C. L. (1998). The Good, the Bad, and the Foreign: The use of dialect in children’s animated television. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 557(1), 105-119.

Dvorkin, J. A. (2005, May 18). Why doesn’t NPR sound more like the rest of America? NPR, Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4656584.

Emsley, J. (1998). The Elements. 3rd edition. Clarendon Press, Oxford.

Fifer, W. P. & Moon, C. (1989). Psychobiology of newborn auditory preferences. Seminars in Perinatology, 13(5), 430.

Foulkes, D. (2002). Children’s Dreaming and the Development of Consciousness. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Fuertes, J. N., Gottdiener, W. H., Martin, H., Gilbert, T. C., & Giles, H. (2012): A meta-analysis of the effects of speakers’ accents on interpersonal evaluations. European Journal of Social Psychology, 42(1), 120-133.

Hackney, E. (31 January 2018). “Y’all and Drawl”. The Harvard Crimson. Retrieved from: https://www.thecrimson.com/column/southern-accented/article/2018/1/31/hackney-yall-and-drawl/

Kinzler, K. D., Shutts, J, DeJesus, J., & Spelke, E. S. (2009). Accent trumps race in guiding children’s social preferences. Social Cognition, 27(4), 623-634.

Kinzler, K. D. & DeJesus, J. M. (2013). Northern = smart and Southern = nice: The development of accent attitudes in the United States. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 66(6), 1146-1158.

Rakic, T., Steffens, M. C., & Mummendey, A. (2011). When it matters how you pronounce it: The influence of regional accents on job interview outcome. British Journal of Psychology, 102(4), 868-883.

Stein, W. E., Mannolini, F., Hernick, L. V., Landing, E., & Berry, C. M. (2007). Giant cladoxylopsoid trees resolve the enigma of the Earth’s earliest forest stumps at Gilboa. Nature, 446(7138), 904.

Vrij, A. & Winkel, F. W. (1994). Perceptual distortions in cross-cultural interrogations. The impact of skin color, accent, speech style, and spoken fluency on impression formation. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 25(2), 284-295.

Credits

“Hear Me Out” was created and developed by Mahzarin Banaji and Olivia Kang with funding from PwC and Harvard University.

Narration by Olivia Kang, featuring Emilee Hackney

Sound editing and mixing by Evan Younger

Music by Miracles of Modern Science

Artwork by Olivia Kang