We’ve all seen the typical courtroom dramas on TV. The plaintiff on the strong offense, and the defendant starting to quiver. Obviously he sounds pretty guilty, so he must be responsible…right? Then again, did it actually sound like a lie, or did you judge him due to his accent?
The effect of accents in perception and decision making
Accents are more common than you think, and they also play a large role in how people perceive you. But does your accent make you appear guilty in front of an audience? Does having an accent impact decisions? In a study by Jason Cantone and his colleagues (2019), they explored the answers to these questions. The team gathered a large number of participants to act as mock jurors for a fictional case. The mock jurors read various transcripts and cross-examinations in regards to two men getting into a car accident. They also listened to the defendant’s testimony. What the mock jurors did not know was that the speaker for this testimony varied depending on what group the participants were placed in. They listened to White, Mexican American, or Black speakers who either spoke with or without an accent.
Defendants with accents were generally judged to be more negligent than non-accented ones across all racial and accent conditions. In particular, accented Black defendants were found to be the most negligent while the White defendants were found least negligent. Similarly, the mock jurors believed the Mexican American and Black defendants should pay higher damages to the plaintiff. The study also found that the participants tended to judge accented defendants more negatively, as for example they decided that their actions were below the standard of care.
The study concluded that the defendant’s accent can lead to ‘disparate treatment’ by jurors. In addition, they found accented individuals were generally declared to be more negligent and thus perceived more negatively compared to no accent.
Accents play a strong role in how others perceive you
So what does this all mean? Maybe you won’t find yourself in the same position as these defendants, but you’ll still be speaking to people in interviews or presentations. Regardless of where you go, your accent could play a significant role in how people perceive and trust you. In other words, people do judge you based on your accent.
Luckily services are available to aid you in accent modification and overall improving your communication (changing your accent does not mean erasing it!).
Jason A. Cantone, Leslie N. Martinez, Cynthia Willis-Esqueda & Taija Miller (2019). Sounding guilty: How accent bias affects juror judgments of culpability, Journal of Ethnicity in Criminal Justice, 17:3, 228-253, DOI: 10.1080/15377938.2019.1623963