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Do we have a natural distrust for foreign people?

March 12, 2012

Xenophobia is the a fear or contempt of that which is foreign or unknown, especially of strangers or foreign people (Psychology dictionary 2010). Although this is rare and extreme it could be that everyone has an innate distrust for foreign people. 

Lev-Ari and Keysar (2010) found that people do not believe others or have a mistrust for what they are saying if they have a foreign accent. They did an experiment and asked people to rate how believable a fact such as ‘giraffes can go longer without water than a camel can’ when the speaker who told them was either a native english speaker, a non native speaker with a mild accent and a non native speaker with a strong accent. Their results found that it was rated as less believable when told by someone from a non native english speaker, especially with a strong accent. This could show that we do not trust those with foreign accents and so foreign people. 

Gavioli & Aston (2001) also found that british people often have a mistrust of foreigners even so to where they find others to be unintelligible and untrustworthy. 

Fear of strangers or foreigners can be explained through evolutionary processes: cavemen who stayed away from people they didn’t know would have been less likely to get attacked and so less likely to die. This would in turn, give them a higher chance of reproducing and passing their gene of mistrust to strangers on to their children. Over a while this will then result in an innate fear of foreigners which is in our genes. This is an explanation for us not trusting a foreign voice or face in situations like; over the phone to overseas call centers


L Gavioli G Aston Enriching reality: language corpora in language pedagogy. doi: 10.1093/elt/55.3.238

Lev-Ari, S; Keysar, B. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 46 (2010) 1093–1096


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  1. This is an intriguing topic, studies involving children have shown that they are more likely to trust and learn from a native-speaker, then a non-native speaker who has an accent. Childrens learning is dependant on the teachings of adults, and they will often disregard their own perceptions of the world if verbally informed (Jaswal & Markman, 2007).
    Kinzle, Corriveau, Harris (2010), found that children selectively recalled and learnt nonsense words from native-accented speakers, then foreign-accented speakers. This shows a somewhat, innate selective trust to those of the same accent and culture. As words were both meaningless in the experiments, thus it can be assumed children tend to orient around their own members of the native community in order to guide their learning. Alternatively, it can be seen that because words were nonesense, they are already difficult to process, so hearing words in a normal accent to their own would be easier to understand, when comparred to a foreign accent .This could mean that the child could better understand someone speaking in their own accent clearer, so it was easier for them to learn that word, instead of the foreign-accents nonesense word.
    An alternate view, provided by Birch, Vauthier & Bloom, (2008) shows that when children are provided with conflicting information via two or more adults, they will always trust the information given from an adult that has demonstrated reliability in history. This could be seen that children are more likely to recognise their own accent, and in such people with their own accent are more trusting because they know more about the culture they are in, whereas a foreign-accent would not neccessarily be as informative about the culture.
    This could give a reasoning to why as we grow up we have a preference to similar accented people, and trusting their information, because of early childhood development.


    Birch, S.A.J., Vauthier, S.A., & Bloom, P. (2008). Three- and 4-year-olds spontaneously use others’ past performance to guide their learning. Cognition, 107, 1018–1034.

    Jaswal, V.K., & Markman, E.M. (2007). Looks aren’t everything: 24-month-olds’ willingness to accept unexpected labels. Journal of Cognition and Development, 8, 93–111.

    Kinzler1,Corriveau, Harris. (2010). Children’s selective trust in native-accented speakers. Developmental Science Volume 14, Issue 1, 106–111.
    DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-7687.2010.00965.x

  2. The main study spoken of here focuses very much on the voice/accent of the person. To use a natural example. the apartheid situation in South Africa was and is a prime example of how physical appearance can produce much bias and distrust. Simply because of the colour of one’s skin the level and trust, and with it the level of unity, fell to pieces. Even now post apartheid and the political divisions, socially there are still clear divisions between all different races within the country without many having even spoken to each other. This supports the idea expressed that people from a different background to us we give less trust to and furthers it to say that it is even stronger when all the individual takes into account is the person’s physical appearance.

  3. When I read this, my first thought was to the idea that people would use this research into having a natural distrust for foreigners as an excuse for racism, and so I decided to search for “evolutionary racism” on google and came upon on an article entitled thus on “conservapedia” (admittedly sounds a bit dodgy.) But I believe that the arguments presented in there do match the results of these studies. If we are predisposed to find foreign people less trustworthy, then we’re more likely to begin to hate them, if we hate them, we’ll eventually find ourselves believing that they are less human because we self-identify as human, and the more we hate something, the more we distance it from ourselves. This could eventually lead to the belief that we should dispose of them, and we’d be using the term “survival of the fittest” as our excuse because we believe that it is our duty to evolution to get rid of lesser beings.

  4. It is less a case of trust and more a case of familiarity. To hear someone speak words that you are used to in a voice you are used to is almost always going to be easier to understand than hearing a voice (or a way of pronouncing words) that you are not used to.

    It may be that a person is more unsure of what they have heard and so doubt themselves and answer accordingly to avoid embarrassment. Furthermore it is difficult to control the effect that the tone and body language of a particular person on another person. For example if in the case of Lev-Ari & Keysar (2010) a British person was being asked questions by someone with a strong (for example) German accent who also happened to come across as a particularly hard or particularly intelligent person they may alter their actions and answers accordingly in the name of social desirability bias – after all, no one wants to make themselves look stupid in comparison to someone else or to incite conflict.

    Although it would be very difficult to compensate for effects that individual differences and first impressions may have on such experiments as these, It would be interesting to see a study similar to Lev-Ari and Keysar (2010) whereby people are given time to get used to a certain accent and subsequently assessed over time to see if the results change.

  5. I agree with you that people are less likely to trust those who are foreign and having different accents. But i also believe that the stereotype linked with these accents have a huge influence on trust. for example a german accent is less trustworthy than and american because of the stereotypes behind them, where germans are often thought of as more aggressive and that american accents are heard all the time through the media. The clarity of the voices may also have an impact on trust as listening to someone with a strong accent may make you believe you have heard wrong or that they do not speak english very well and so are not aware of whether what they are saying is accurate or not and so results in them being less trustworthy. This all gives support that there may be many reasons for why we do not trust foreigners and that it may not be due to innate behaviour.

  6. I agree that we are generally less likely to trust people with foreign accents. I think however the main reason for this is less to do with their accents but possibly more to do with the fear of the unknown. Ever since childhood we have always been told not to talk to strangers and not to trust them. The way a child sees a stranger is someone who is different to them so, not a child, different accent, wears different clothes and looks different. This is reinforced by the parents and then as someone develops into an adult they possibly continue with this thought process.
    I think that because of this, this would be an interesting area to do further research into. I think it would be interesting to look at whether it is accents from people overseas that people trust less or simply a different accent to their own (such as southern and northern). There is also the possibility that the media effects which accents we are more trusting of.

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