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.