The Brain on Outsiders

Brad Pitt as Mickey in the Movie Snatch

Can You Understand This Man?

I was watching Snatch last night and chuckling over Brad Pitt’s comical rendition of Mickey O’Neill, an Irish gipsy traveller and fighter. If you’ve seen Snatch, Mickey’s thick accent is as memorable as it is indecipherable.  Mickey doesn’t care, he happily babbles on unaware of the confused looks on the faces around him.

Though Mickey’s accent is exaggerated for entertainment’s sake, a recent study has shown that it actually is more difficult for our brain to process and understand a non-native accent.

Imaging Study Suggests Accents are Subtle ‘Insider’ or ‘Outsider’ Signal to the Brain

The study, presented at Neuroscience 2010, showed that the brain of 20 subjects processed non-native accents and native accents differently, and that processing of native accents was much easier than the processing of non-native accents.

In the study, 20 Scots listened to recordings of nine female speakers (three American, three British, and three Scottish) while their brain activity was measured with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). The authors suspected that brain activity in an area associated with accent processing would decrease as accented words were repeated and the brain became accustomed to them. However, they found this occurred only when the Scots listened to American or British accents, and not to Scottish accents, suggesting the listeners had to adapt to outsiders’ accents, but not their own.

I didn’t find this to be surprising since language and accent acquisition is learned and our brain would be wired during development to recognize certain sounds. However, the researchers were looking for the possibility of adaptive cognitive mechanisms underlying bias towards outsiders.

“Many positive and negative social attributes are inferred from accents, and it’s important to find the underlying cognitive mechanisms of how people perceive them,” said lead author Patricia Bestelmeyer, PhD. “Accents affect perceptions of competence or trustworthiness, important attributes for salesmen and jobseekers alike.”

They go on to say:

“The initial results suggest that such vocal samples somehow reflect group membership or social identity, so that ‘in-group’ voices are processed differently from the ‘out-group.’”


Understanding how our brains respond to other accents may explain one way in which people have an unconscious bias against outsiders.

I’m not sure I buy that. We could certainly identify outsiders by accents, but bias? I know many women who swoon when Sean Connery opens his mouth. And there are other explanations for why a native accent is easier to process having to do with how the brain develops language in the brain.

However, if the results of this study can be replicated, it points to an important element of local radio and television spots.

Cognitive Fluency for Radio and Television Spots

The results of this study suggest it would be smart to ensure that any vocals used in your local marketing campaign are performed by a native speaker rather than any old hired radio/television voice. Cognitive fluency – the ease with which something can be understood – has already been shown to be important for your copy, but this applies to audio and video too.

One could also get wild and crazy and imagine using geo-targeting technology to deliver video or audio to viewers/listeners with a voice that is a true native to their region. But hang on there big corporations, more studies and replication are needed before we start shipping people from various parts of the country for recording sessions so you can better sell your wares in the deep south vs. Northern Minnesota.

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  • Roger Dooley

    Nice post, Jennifer. I lived in Tennessee for a while, and although virtually all locals spoke with a pronounced Southern accent, very few commercials employed that accent. While the cognitive fluency aspect didn’t occur to me at the time, I wondered why more advertisers didn’t try to sound like their customers.


  • Verilliance

    Thanks Roger. It does seem to make sense for local businesses, particularly in areas where the accent is distinct.

  • Naomi Niles

    That’s interesting.

    I’m from Colorado, but I still have the remains of an ever so slight accent from living in Spain for 6 years. I’ve noticed that if you say something even slightly different (I don’t notice when I do it), there’s a good probability that you get the deer in headlights look.

    I’ve found though, that it depends mostly on the other person you’re talking to though. They need to have a certain level of patience and actually be interested and listening.

  • Verilliance

    Naomi, I have no accent that I’m aware of. My mother was strict about us not picking up accents. I remember when we lived near Boston I started dropping my r’s and she immediately would ask me to spell what I just said.

    I thought she was being uptight at the time, but I see the wisdom now and thank her for it. If not for her insistence, I’d have a combo Boston/Vermont drawl.

  • Stephen

    Thanks for posting this article.

    Its interesting that you say that you do not have an accent, especially in the context of the study discussed. Every speaker of English has an accent – some have stronger accents than others, and some have accents with less social prestige, but everyone pronounces words in a certain way.

    Also, I think the term “native” is not used accurately in the article. Scottish, English, Americans, and even Irish Travllers are all native speakers of English. Again, they may have accents with greater or lesser social social prestige, and have differing levels of education and literacy, but they all speak English as their mother tongue.

  • Verilliance

    Hi Stephen. The term “native” in the article is used together with “accent” so it’s referring to a “native accent”, and it seems that’s a fair way to categorize. Scottish, English, American, and Irish Travellers are indeed all native speakers of English, but each country has a “native accent”, their own variation of the language. Within each country there are further categorizations based on region, class, etc.

    As for my accent, of course technically I must fit into some pronunciation categorization, but what I meant of course was that I did not pick up the very distinct “native accents” of the two regions I grew up in. That was unusual for where I lived. My mother emphasized articulation and “the King’s English”.