MONTREAL — If you find yourself feeling inexplicably more suspicious of someone after hearing them talk, it may be an unintentional, yet natural bias. People with strong accents come off as less trustworthy to others — unless they speak with noticeable confidence, a new study finds.

Researchers from McGill University’s School of Communication Sciences and Disorders say humans subconsciously judge others based on their accent and attach more trust to foreign speakers who we identify with more closely. For example, if you were taking the subway in a strange city and asked two different passengers for help with which line to take, and one passenger had a noticeable accent, you’d likely be more inclined to follow the instructions of the rider who sounds more like you, even if they were wrong.

That’s because various parts of the brain are activated when we listen to people speak, which guide how we decide to value what they’re saying. We inherently place higher value — a natural bias — on those who appear to be members of our group, or at least most similar to us.

“There are possibly two billion people around the world who speak English as a second language – and many of us live in societies that are culturally diverse. As we make decisions about whether or not to trust people who are different from us we pay a lot of attention both to visual cues and to a person’s voice,” explains Marc Pell, the senior author of the study, in a university release. “Here, we wanted to better understand how we make trust-related decisions about other people based strictly on their speaking voice.”

For the study, researchers recruited adults who spoke Canadian-English as their native language and had them listen to statements spoken by people with different accents. Some of the speakers had Canadian-English accents, while others spoke in Australian-English or English accents typically heard among French-speaking Canadians. Speakers also delivered their statements with various levels of confidence. Participants were asked to rate the level of trust or believability they had in each statement they heard. Researchers also used fMRI scans to monitor the areas of the brain that activated when participants listened to and rated the speakers.

The authors found that one’s natural bias against an unfamiliar accent disappeared to an extent when a person spoke with greater confidence. In fact, the effect was so influenced by one’s assuredness that they were ultimately viewed as equally believable to the native speaker or the person one better identified with.

Researchers say in reviewing the brain scans, they discovered different areas were activated based on accent. When a speaker had the same accent as the participant, regions of the brain which use past experiences to formulate opinions were primarily used. But for those with accents, the temporal regions of the brain, which rely auditory processing, were more active. The authors say the finding shows the decision on whether to trust a speaker involves two keys — the sound of the speaker’s voice as well as the tone.

“What this shows me is that, in future, if I want to be believed, it may be in my interest to adopt a very confident tone of voice in a whole range of situations,” adds Xiaoming Jiang, a former post-doctoral fellow at McGill and now Associate Professor at Tongji University, who speaks English as a second-language and is the first author on the paper. “This is a finding that potentially has repercussions for people who speak with an accent when it comes to everything ranging from employment to education and the judicial process.”

The full study was published in the November 1, 2018 edition of the journal NeuroImage.

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