Looking back through some old notes I was reminded of a study once presented at a Psychological Society conference. It claimed that accents could be graded. This was tested by presenting a short film of someone being interviewed about a minor crime. The possible offender spoke in a variety of local accents. The subjects were then asked whether they thought the interviewee was guilty. You may not be surprised to learn that a Birmingham accent was most likely to be associated with guilt, followed closely by Glasgow and Liverpool. A later study showed that such accents reduced an individual’s job chances.
Professor Honey’s definitive Does Accent Matter makes it clear that what we call a BBC accent carries the highest credibility. Some of us will remember when Wilfred Pickles started reading the BBC News, towards the end of the war. (Give ‘im the mooney, Barnie.) I have to confess to wondering (I was very young et très snob) how anyone could give credence to such a source. Perhaps it fooled the Nazis into thinking we had given up the ghost.
How very unfair! Yet perhaps not more unfair than the well established fact that tall people are seen as having greater personal authority. More of them get into senior positions and estimates have been made of how much each inch of height is worth in extra salary. The figure is around £500. Or that attractive people are more credible, more likely to win legal actions, and to be awarded larger damages than the less well favoured.
But before we deplore these judgments too strongly it is good to remember that prejudice is a necessary thing. That is, in the ordinary run of life we do not have the time to judge from scratch the people we encounter. It is essential that we start with a number of assumptions. Of course we must be ready to correct or refine those assumptions in any particular case. The problem may be that we are often unaware of the rocky foundation on which our assumptions are based.
Our assumption about height is thought to be related to a primitive instinct that leaders should be physically formidable enough to protect us against outside dangers. But it could be argued that this instinct could result in tall people feeling more confident, and so actually performing better as leaders. There may be a sexual note here. When Kissinger said “power is the ultimate aphrodisiac”, he knew of what he spoke. Money may work too: Bernie Ecclestone is small and rich, and glamour surrounds him.
Are you a racist? Almost certainly; however strongly you deny it you probably are. An instinct to be suspicious of strangers is built into the human psyche. This is not surprising – strangers are riskier than those we recognise as similar to ourselves. And of course racial differences are usually visual. One of the ways that Nazis identified Jews was by measuring their noses.
A doctor, interested in such matters, sent invented applications for consultancy posts at hospitals. While the details were identical, the name was sometimes obviously British and sometimes obviously Asian. British named applicants were substantially more likely to be shortlisted for interview. The medical establishment is not amused. And incidentally foreign accents are less readily believed than our own.
These distinction start very young. At 5 months a baby can distinguish adults faces equally well across a racial range; by 9 months, using more of the brain and incorporating more experience, they can recognise and interpret faces from their own race better than from other races. And, if you can’t interpret facial expressions, you are wise to be wary.
How do we eradicate such prejudices? I don’t think that we can. The only remedy is, in humility, to be aware of how we are susceptible to such basic instincts. As I have suggested they have developed early in human, and even pre-human, times. And they are often based in rational precautions against primitive dangers – often no longer pertinent. We are not surprised that Socrates emphasised the exhortation written in gold at Delphi: “Gnothe seauton – Know thyself.”
(My grandson, Alexander, who is 6 years old (7 in a week, he says) wants to have his name on the internet. Here it is.)