We prefer people who sound like us

According to recent research, accents can do more than turn a flower seller into a lady.

At the “Language and the Brain” press conference presented at the Society for Neuroscience’s annual meeting yesterday, Dr. Patricia Bestelmeyer of the University of Glasgow described how accents impact our reactions to others.

While in an fMRI machine, 20 Scottish study participants listened to recordings of Americans, Brits, and Scots. Brain scans showed that the participants processed the recorded Scottish-accented speech faster and with more accuracy than the American and British words. But as they listened to further recordings, brain activity decreased with non-native speech and increased with the familiar accent, indicating that the subjects had a strong attentional bias to their native accent.

Dr. Bestelmeyer stressed that this is early research that needs to be replicated—she is now conducting a similar experiment with English participants, and would like to do one using Scottish participants who have had extended exposure to a non-native accent from living in another country, for example.

Still, she drew broader conclusions from her early findings. Dr. Bestelmeyer noted that people attribute more positive traits to their native accent, indicating that we are more likely to hire someone or buy from someone who sounds like us.

Unlike Dr. Bestelmeyer, I did not grow up exposed to dulcet Scottish tones. Am I really more likely to buy from people with the native Rhode Island accents I heard constantly for the first 17 years of my life?

Perhaps: If not, local ads would long ago have stopped using the voices of local business owners. And ads like the one below have been around for as long as I can remember. (Pay special attention to the perfect Rhode Island pronunciation of “idea” eight seconds in.)

–Johanna Goldberg

One response

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