People's accents play a crucial role in how we judge them, psychologists from Jena University, Germany, have shown.
"The accent is much more important than the way a person looks," said Dr. Tamara Rakic.
"The classification into social categories, like for instance ethnicity, happens spontaneously and helps us to understand and simplify the complex world and to enable us to deal more easily with complexity," Rakic added.
In their current studies Dr. Rakic and her colleagues Professor Dr. Melanie Steffens and Professor Dr. Amilie Mummendey tested empirically for the first time the influence of language on ethnic categorization.
"With our language we are not only transmitting information. Language itself provides a lot of information about the person speaking. Those who have an accent give away their ethnic background as well", Dr. Rakic said.
They showed to the participants the photos of German and Italian looking persons together with a written statement of the persons depicted. Then the participants had to assign the statements to the depicted persons. Mix-ups were particularly common within the groups of German and Italian looking persons. Statements made by German looking persons however were not wrongly assigned to Italian looking persons (or vice versa).
When accents were added, now some German looking persons spoke standard German and some with an Italian accent, (as well as Italian looking people).
"The results indicate that the participants orientated themselves nearly exclusively on the spoken accent while categorizing people," said Dr. Rakic.
The looks which came into the equation by categorizing in the first experiment while no other information was provided were not important anymore. According to Rakic this is proof of the great importance of language as a source of information in the ethnic categorization: this is in accordance with the assumption that accent free language plays a crucial role in social integration.
The study has just been published in the online edition of the "Journal of Personality and Social Psychology".