Voice of concern: Accents as evidence for in-group avoidance during the COVID-19 pandemic

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  • Current research on the behavioral immune system postulates that avoiding out-group members is one strategy that individuals use to avoid contracting infection. The present study tested whether different news headlines related to the COVID-19 pandemic would evoke a disgust reaction in Canadian native-speaker participants by altering their perceptions of accent similarity to 3 different groups of speakers: native speakers of English, and speakers with both familiar and unfamiliar foreign accents. Participants were primed with news headlines unrelated to COVID-19 in the control condition, which preceded the two COVID conditions presenting headlines either emphasizing (COVID-severe) or downplaying (COVID-downplay) the severity of COVID-19. After rating headlines for each condition, participants listened to 24 recordings of 12 different speakers and rated how similar their accent was to the speech they heard. Analysis using ordinal Generalized Additive Mixed Models revealed an interaction between speaker group and headline prime; participants rated the accents of other native speakers as sounding less similar after viewing the COVID-severe and COVID-downplay headline primes compared to the control primes. No significant differences were found between headline prime and the familiar or unfamiliar foreign accented speakers, suggesting that a disgust response was evoked in participants solely towards in-group members (native speakers) after reading headlines mentioning COVID-19. The disgust response likely created psychological distance towards in-group members, altering perceptions of other native speakers of English who are likely to pass infection on during a pandemic. This result provides evidence against theories that outgroup members are automatically distanced under a pathogen threat (Reid et al. 2012) and support for the view that disease avoidance behaviors are governed by threat specific knowledge, creating aversion to individuals who are likely to spread infection, regardless of group membership status.

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    Research Material
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    Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International