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Could accents affect how successfully we recognise others?

Published: 
2 September 2009

Psychologists from the University of Southampton have found it may be more difficult to identify a voice if the person’s accent is different from our own.

Dr Sarah Stevenage, from the University’s School of Psychology, studied 49 people with southern accents (from Southampton) and 85 people with northern accents (Manchester) to find out if they could recognise voices despite their differing regional accents.

Each person was asked to pick a target voice out of an ‘auditory line-up’ of six voices with the same accent. Every participant did this for both northern and southern accents. Preliminary results of this study were presented at the British Psychological Society’s Cognitive Psychology section annual conference.

Dr Stevenage commented: “We found that people were affected by accent in this task. Participants in our study found it more difficult to discriminate between speakers with a different accent to their own. Northern participants were much more successful at picking out the northern target voice than southern participants were.

"Additionally, and more worryingly, the false alarm rate – picking the wrong voice out of the line up - was significantly higher when people were judging those voices with accents different to their own.

“Our results provide evidence for an ‘other accent affect’; that people find it harder to discriminate between voices of a different accent to their own. This could have important implications when a criminal’s voice is part of eye witness evidence, or a suspect’s identification.”

The research was carried out as part of an undergraduate research project, and won a prize for innovation within the University’s School of Psychology.

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