In a second experiment, participants were explicitly told that the goal of the research was to study how the difficulty of understanding people’s speech might affect the perceived credibility of their statements. Statements were still judged as less truthful when spoken in heavy than native accents, although participants were able to correct their judgments for mild accents.
These findings have important implications for how people perceive non-native speakers of a language, particularly as mobility increases in the modern world, leading millions of people to be non-native speakers of the language they use daily. Instead of perceiving their speech as harder to understand, natives are prone to perceive their statements as less truthful. Consequently accent might reduce the credibility of non-native job seekers, court eyewitnesses, or college instructors for reasons that have nothing to do with xenophobia per se.
But the ramifications of cognitive fluency are not all bleak for the intrepid immigrant and international visitor. Several recent studies suggest that modest disruptions of cognitive fluency – cases of cognitive “disfluency,” if you will – prompt people to think critically. For example, University of Michigan psychologists Norbert Schwarz and Hyunjin Song found that formatting a test in a difficult-to-read font dramatically decreased the number of people tripped up by trick questions like “How many animals of each kind did Moses take on the Ark?” [Answer: None – Moses wasn’t on the Ark, Noah was]. In effect, making people work harder to process the test questions made them less likely to make careless mistakes. College students, take heed: practice parsing your non-native teaching assistant’s accented speech might well augment your analytical skills.
Are you a scientist? Have you recently read a peer-reviewed paper that you want to write about? Then contact Mind Matters co-editor Gareth Cook, a Pulitzer prize–winning journalist at the Boston Globe, where he edits the Sunday Ideas section. He can be reached at garethideas AT gmail.com