On Foreign Accents and Blinking in Black or White

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A new study from the University of Chicago shows that a foreign accent undermines a person’s credibility in ways that the speaker and the listener don’t consciously realize.

“The results 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,” said Boaz Keysar, a Professor of Psychology at the University of Chicago and an expert on communication.

“Accent might reduce the credibility of non-native job seekers, eyewitnesses, reporters or people taking calls in foreign call centers,” said Shiri Lev-Ari, lead author of “Why Don’t We Believe Non-native Speakers? The Influence of Accent on Credibility,” written with Keysar and published in the current issue of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

But on the other hand, I wouldn’t be surprised if there might be countries where foreign accents can make speakers seem more truthful to listeners. I can think of a few countries where being a foreigner is a plus, that is, a European or North American foreigner! One has to take into account cultural beliefs and brainwashing propaganda against or pro all things foreign. It is interesting and very telling of how much can slip our conscious awareness. I am also reminded of the following study from Blink by Malcolm Gladwell:

Blink in Black and White

Over  the past  few years, a number of psychologists have begun  to  look more closely at  the  role these kinds of unconscious—or, as they like to call them, implicit—associations play in our beliefs and behavior, and much of their work  has  focused  on  a  very  fascinating  tool  called  the  Implicit Association  Test  (IAT). The  IAT was devised  by  Anthony  G.  Greenwald,  Mahzarin  Banaji,  and  Brian  Nosek,  and it is based on a seemingly obvious—but  nonetheless  quite  profound—observation. We  make  connections much more  quickly  between pairs of  ideas that are already related  in our minds than we do between pairs of ideas that are unfamiliar to us. What does  that mean? Let me give you an example. Below  is a  list of words. Take a pencil or pen and assign each name  to  the category  to which  it belongs by putting a check mark either  to  the  left or  to  the  right of  the word. You can also do it by tapping your finger  in the appropriate column. Do it as quickly as you can. Don’t skip over words. And don’t worry if you make any mistakes.

That was easy, right? And the reason that was easy is that when we read or hear the name “John” or “Bob”or  “Holly,” we  don’t  even  have  to  think  about whether  it’s  a masculine  or  a  feminine  name. We  all  have a strong prior  association  between  a  first name  like  John and  the male  gender,  or  a  name  like Lisa  and  things female.

That was  a warm-up. Now  let’s complete  an  actual  IAT.  It works  like  the warm-up, except  that now I’m going  to mix two entirely separate categories  together. Once again, put a check mark  to either the right or  the left of each word, in the category to which it belongs.

My guess is that most of you found that a little harder, but that you were still pretty fast at putting the words into the right categories. Now try this:

Did you notice the difference? This test was quite a bit harder  than  the one before it, wasn’t  it?  If you are like most  people,  it  took  you  a  little  longer  to  put  the word  “Entrepreneur”  into  the  “Career”  category when “Career” was  paired with  “Female”  than when  “Career” was  paired with  “Male.” That’s  because most  of  us have much  stronger mental  associations  between maleness  and  career-oriented  concepts  than we  do  between femaleness and ideas related to careers. “Male” and “Capitalist” go together in our minds a lot like “John” and “Male” did. But when the category is “Male or Family,” we have to stop and think—even if it’s only for a few hundred milliseconds—before we decide what to do with a word like “Merchant.”

When psychologists administer the IAT, they usually don’t use paper and pencil tests like the ones I’ve just given you. Most of the time, they do it on a computer. The words are flashed on the screen one at a time, and if a  given word  belongs  in  the  left-hand  column, you  hit  the  letter  e, and  if  the word belongs  in  the  right-hand column, you hit the letter i. The advantage of doing the IAT on a computer is that the responses are measurable down to the millisecond, and those measurements are used in assigning the test taker’s score. So, for example, if it took you a little bit longer to complete part  two of  the Work/Family IAT  than  it did part one, we would say that you have a moderate association between men and  the workforce.  If  it  took you a  lot  longer  to  complete part two, we’d say that when it comes to the workforce, you have a strong automatic male association. One of the reasons that the IAT has become so popular in recent years as a research tool is that the effects it is  measuring  are  not  subtle;  as  those  of  you  who  felt  yourself  slowing  down  on  the  second  half  of  the Work/Family IAT above can attest, the IAT is the kind of tool that hits you over the head with its conclusions. “When  there’s  a  strong  prior  association,  people  answer  in  between  four  hundred  and  six  hundred milliseconds,” says Greenwald. “When there  isn’t,  they might take  two hundred  to  three hundred milliseconds longer  than  that—which  in  the  realm  of  these  kinds  of  effects  is  huge.  One  of  my  cognitive  psychologist colleagues described this as an effect you can measure with a sundial.”

If you’d like to try a computerized IAT, you can go to www.implicit.harvard.edu. There you’ll find several tests, including the most famous of all the IATs, the Race IAT. I’ve taken the Race IAT on many occasions, and the result always leaves me feeling a bit creepy. At the beginning of the test, you are asked what your attitudes toward blacks and whites are.  I answered, as  I am sure most of you would,  that  I  think of  the  races as  equal. Then comes the test. You’re encouraged to complete it quickly. First comes the warm-up. A series of pictures of faces flash on the screen. When you see a black face, you press e and put it in the left-hand category. When you see a white face, you press i and put it in the right-hand category. It’s blink, blink, blink: I didn’t have to think at all. Then comes part one.

And so on. Immediately, something strange happened to me. The task of putting the words and faces in the right categories suddenly became more difficult. I found myself slowing down. I had to think. Sometimes I assigned something to one category when I really meant to assign it to the other category. I was trying as hard as I could, and in the back of my mind was a growing sense of mortification. Why was I having such trouble when I had to put a word  like  “Glorious” or  “Wonderful”  into  the  “Good” category when “Good” was paired with  “African American”  or  when  I  had  to  put  the  word  “Evil”  into  the  “Bad”  category  when  “Bad”  was  paired  with “European American”? Then came part two. This time the categories were reversed.

And so on. Now my mortification grew still further. Now I was having no trouble at all.
Evil? African American or Bad.
Hurt? African American or Bad.
Wonderful? European American or Good.

I  took the test a second time, and  then a third time, and then a fourth time, hoping that  the awful feeling of bias would go away.  It made no difference.  It  turns out  that more  than 80 percent of all those who have ever taken the test end up having  pro-white  associations, meaning  that  it  takes  them  measurably longer to complete answers when they are required  to  put  good words into the “Black” category  than when  they  are required to link bad things with black people. I didn’t do quite so badly. On the Race IAT, I was rated as having a “moderate automatic preference for whites.” But then again, I’m half black. (My mother is Jamaican.)

So what does this mean? Does this mean  I’m a racist, a self-hating black  person? Not exactly. What  it means is that our attitudes toward  things  like  race  or gender operate on two levels. First of  all, we have our conscious attitudes. This is what we choose to believe. These are our stated values, which we use  to direct our behavior deliberately. The apartheid policies  of South Africa or the laws in the American South that made  it difficult for African Americans to vote are manifestations of conscious discrimination, and when we talk about racism  or  the  fight  for  civil  rights,  this  is  the  kind  of  discrimination  that we  usually refer to. But the  IAT measures something else. It measures our second level of attitude, our racial attitude on an unconscious level—the  immediate,  automatic  associations  that tumble out  before  we’ve  even  had time to think.  We don’t deliberately choose  our unconscious attitudes. And as I wrote about  in  the first chapter, we may not even be aware of  them.  The giant computer that  is our unconscious silently crunches all the data it can from the experiences we’ve  had,  the  people we’ve met,  the  lessons we’ve  learned,  the  books we’ve  read,  the movies we’ve seen, and so on, and it forms an opinion. That’s what is coming out in the IAT.

The  disturbing  thing  about  the  test is that it shows that our unconscious attitudes may be utterly incompatible with our stated conscious values. As it turns out,  for example,  of  the  fifty  thousand African Americans who have  taken  the Race  IAT so  far, about  half of  them,  like me, have stronger  associations with whites than with blacks. How could we not? We live in North America, where we are surrounded every day by cultural messages linking white with good. “You don’t choose to make positive associations with the dominant group,” says Mahzarin Banaji, who teaches psychology at Harvard University and is one of  the leaders  in  IAT research.  “But you are required  to. All around you,  that group  is being paired with good things. You open the newspaper and you turn on the television, and you can’t escape it.”

The IAT  is more than just an abstract measure of attitudes. It’s also a powerful predictor of how we act in certain kinds of spontaneous situations.  If you  have a strongly  pro-white pattern of associations,  for example, there  is evidence  that  that will  affect  the way you behave  in  the presence of a black  person.  It’s not going  to affect what you’ll choose  to say or  feel or do.  In all  likelihood, you won’t be aware  that you’re behaving any differently  than you would around a white person. But chances are you’ll  lean  forward a  little  less,  turn away slightly from him or her, close your body a bit, be a bit less expressive, maintain less eye contact, stand a little farther away, smile a lot less, hesitate and stumble over your words a bit more,  laugh at  jokes a bit  less. Does that matter? Of course it does. Suppose the conversation is a job interview. And suppose the applicant is a black man. He’s going to pick up on that uncertainty and distance, and that may well make him a little less certain of himself, a little  less confident, and a little less friendly. And what will you  think then? You may well get a gut feeling that  the applicant doesn’t  really have what it  takes, or maybe that he is a bit standoffish, or maybe that he  doesn’t  really want  the  job. What  this  unconscious  first  impression will  do,  in  other words,  is  throw  the interview hopelessly off course.

Or what if the person you are interviewing is tall? I’m sure that on a conscious level we don’t think that we treat  tall people any differently  from how we  treat short people. But  there’s plenty of evidence  to suggest  that height—particularly in men—does trigger a certain set of very positive unconscious associations. I polled about half of the companies on the Fortune 500 list—the list of the  largest corporations in the United States—asking each company questions about its CEO. Overwhelmingly, the heads of big companies are, as I’m sure comes as no  surprise  to  anyone, white men, which  undoubtedly  reflects  some  kind  of  implicit  bias. But  they  are  also almost all  tall:  in my sample,  I found  that on average, male CEOs were  just a shade under six  feet tall. Given that the average American male is  five  foot nine,  that means  that CEOs as a group have about three  inches on the rest of their sex. But this statistic actually understates the matter. In the U.S. population, about 14.5 percent of all men are six feet or taller. Among CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, that number is 58 percent. Even more striking,  in  the general American  population,  3.9  percent  of  adult men  are  six  foot  two  or  taller. Among my CEO sample, almost a third were six foot two or taller.

The  lack  of women  or minorities  among  the  top executive  ranks  at  least  has  a  plausible explanation. For years, for a number of reasons having to do with discrimination and cultural patterns, there simply weren’t a lot of women and minorities entering  the management ranks of American corporations. So, today, when boards of directors  look  for  people  with  the  necessary  experience  to  be  candidates  for  top  positions,  they  can  argue somewhat plausibly that there aren’t a lot of women and minorities in the executive pipeline. But this is not true of short people. It is possible to staff a large company entirely with white males, but it is not possible to staff a  large company without short people. There simply aren’t enough  tall people  to go around. Yet  few of  those short people ever make it into the executive suite. Of the tens of millions of American men below five foot six, a  grand  total  of  ten  in my sample  have  reached  the  level of CEO, which says  that being  short  is  probably  as much of a handicap to corporate success as being a woman or an African American. (The grand exception to all of these trends is American Express CEO Kenneth Chenault, who is both on the short side—five foot nine—and black. He must be a remarkable man to have overcome two Warren Harding errors.)

Is  this a deliberate prejudice? Of  course  not. No one ever says dismissively  of a potential CEO  candidate that he’s  too short. This  is quite clearly the kind of unconscious bias that the IAT picks up on. Most of us,  in ways that we are not entirely aware of, automatically associate leadership ability with imposing physical stature. We have a sense of what a leader is supposed to look like, and that stereotype is so powerful that when someone fits it, we simply become blind to other considerations. And this isn’t confined to the executive suite. Not long ago,  researchers who analyzed the data from four  large research studies  that had followed  thousands of people from birth to adulthood calculated that when corrected for such variables as age and gender and weight, an inch of height is worth $789 a year in salary. That means that a person who is six feet tall but otherwise identical to someone who  is  five  foot  five will make  on  average  $5,525 more  per  year. As Timothy  Judge, one of the authors of  the  height-salary study,  points out: “If you take this over the  course of  a 30-year  career and compound  it, we’re  talking about a tall person enjoying  literally hundreds of  thousands  of dollars of earnings advantage.” Have you ever wondered why so many mediocre people find  their way  into positions of authority in companies and organizations? It’s because when it comes to even the most important positions, our selection decisions are a good deal less rational than we think. We see a tall person and we swoon. [Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell]

Regardless of your bias, remember that it is always good to think with a hammer – that is, approach an object of thought from all angles, hammer against one’s beliefs and prejudices, and create internal friction by being critical of the thought process itself. This process helps to forge new paths and connections in your brain as opposed to forcing things to fit within existing mental categories. Expand your mind to the size of the questions instead of shrinking the questions to fit your mind’s habits!

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