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Okay, wait! Which one of you was I listening to?

Monday, March 21, 2011
posted by Douglas Keene

We know that listening to someone with a foreign accent makes us more biased. As we blogged earlier—when we listen to someone speaking with an accent, we tend to view them as dishonest/not truthful. The heavier the accent, the worse it gets in terms of our assessment of the person’s truthfulness.  Or at least some people do.  Not you or me.  But there is hope for those who have clients or witnesses with heavy accents.

Recent research out of Ball State University gives us information that you might use to help discredit eyewitness identification when the eyewitness is listening to heavily accented speech. We have to work harder to process and understand accented speech. As it happens, we have to work so hard to interpret accented speech that we don’t ‘see’ quite as well. [Oddly enough, there is a Facebook group for those that can’t hear when they don’t have their glasses on but that’s another issue.]

Because we have to work so hard to listen to and understand accented speech our memory for the speaker’s appearance can be impaired.

When direct comparisons were made between a perpetrator with an accent and one without an accent, researchers found that witnesses provided a significantly poorer physical description and were less able to accurately identify the perpetrator’s voice.

The more detailed the information spoken, the less accurate the witnesses were in reporting correct details about the perpetrator’s appearance.

And finally, the more threatening the message, the less accuracy in reporting the perpetrator’s appearance.

And just for fun, here’s an example of how the researchers varied the experimental script to make it a ‘low threat’ versus a ‘high threat’ situation. [The text in bold font was added to vary the low threat versus high threat conditions.]

I have a gun in my jacket, so do what I tell you or I swear I’ll splatter your brains all over this office. I have an accomplice who’s standing in the lobby near your security guard right now. He will kill the guard and start shooting customers if you activate the alarm. You will leave your office and turn left. Go to the loan officer’s cubicle and tell her you’re going to lunch. I’ll be watching, so don’t say anything else or both of you will leave this bank in body bags. Then walk back past your office and go to the vault. Open it and go inside. I’ll give you two large cloth bags. Fill them three fourths of the way with cash and then tie the drawstrings. Now listen carefully or I’ll kill you. Carry the bags out of the vault and turn right. I’ll follow you. Go out the east door to the parking lot and look for a dark blue Ford truck. Approach from the front and give the money to the driver. Then walk over to the sign by the street that says ‘exit only’ and stand there. Don’t move until after we have driven away. If you follow these directions, no one will get hurt.

So, a thicker accent, a detailed communication and a scary communication combine to dim our ability to recall someone’s appearance. We thought you might want to know that.

Pickel, K., & Staller, J. (2011). A perpetrator’s accent impairs witness’ memory for physical appearance. Law and Human Behavior

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