Researchers from the University of Cape Town have conducted a study, showing that having an English accent makes you appear more trustworthy in South Africa.
The study, done in 2014 by Ece Yagman, et al, is based on a “trust game”, which was designed to determine how much subjects trust their experiment partners (who are strangers) based on race, gender, or any other variable.
The game mimics a simplified economic transaction: subject A is asked to give subject B any portion of their money (from nothing to all of it). Once the transaction is done, the total money is doubled – and subject B may or may not return the initial amount.
The aim of such an experiment is determine if subject A trusts subject B to return the initial amount.
In a perfect trust setting, subject A would give all the money to subject B, and once the money is doubled, subject B would return the initial amount, and both would sit with equal amounts.
The specific trust game played by Yagman, et al was to test what impact an English accent would have on trust.
“In an increasingly global world, where English is the dominant language, does investing in English yield positive outcomes,” the researchers asked.
Impact of language on trust
The result of the experiment found that both blacks and whites that spoke with an English accent yielded far greater investment than any other mother tongue, overall.
However there was a stark difference between blacks and whites when it came to black partners.
Notably, black subjects were willing to part with more of their money – as much as 20% more – if their partner was black and spoke with an English accent.
Among whites, though, if their black partner had an English accent, they trusted them less, making smaller offers.
- White men offered more to whites, irrespective of their language, and less to blacks, irrespective of their language.
- Black men offered more to blacks with an English accent.
- Black women offered more to whites, irrespective of their language, and offered less to blacks, unless they had an English accent, in which case they got more.
- White women offered more to whites, irrespective of their language, and offered more to blacks, unless they had an English accent – which is opposite to they way black women reacted.
However, the overall study found that a mother tongue of English ‘reinforces’ trustworthiness.
Race and gender
Previous trust games cited in the document found that there are also big differences along racial and gender lines.
Specifically, in 2006, a similar experiment using black and white subjects found that white men were consistently trusted more, and black men were trusted the least – by both blacks and whites.
The biggest difference seen in that experiment, however, was that blacks were the least trusting overall, making “significantly lower offers”.
“Findings from this study point towards a systematic distrust towards black partners, by both black and white proposers, and this is mostly due to mistaken expectations,” Yagman said.
Looking at gender, Yagman cited international experiments which found that women are the least trusting, while men were more trusting, consistently making higher offers.
Why is English trusted?
While the study doesn’t go into too much detail to unpack the “why” behind the results, the researchers found that most reactions were due to entrenched stereotypes related to language.
“If [a subject] realizes that [a partner] is wearing a doctor’s coat, [they] might change [their] perception quite quickly,” they said.
“Applying this to our results, when white students first see a black student, they may send greater amounts out of pure altruism based on a stereotype of lower socio-economic status.”
“However, in our study, we speculate that white students’ perceptions change when they hear a mother tongue English accent as they realise that the black partner does not fit the stereotype that they might have created in the first place.”
This reaction may account for why black partners with an English accent received lower offers from whites.
With black students, the researchers said that colonial history pushed English into “high-status” domains such as politics, media, education, etc – which entrenched the perception of power, pushing African languages into a “lower-status”.
“It can be argued that this fragmentation along high-status/low-status language manifests itself in the Trust Game when Black students trust their co-ethnic partners more if they have a mother-tongue English accent,” the researchers said.