Some years ago I was leading a marketing project using large newspaper advertisements to solicit eager responses from readers. I consulted the experts, and I found that there was an established, comprehensive set of rules known to achieve the best results. It covered everything from choice of words to pictures to layout. It was emphasised that the product needed a sponsor of credibility whose photograph appeared prominently. While it was preferable, if expensive, to bribe the goodwill of a well-known person, it was sufficient that he or she simply appeared trustworthy. So how much weight do we put on appearances?
I start with a study that was published last month on the credibility of accents. It seems that we are less likely to believe an individual who has a foreign accent. Presumably we retain our credulity for those who seem to be like us. Johnny Foreigner is at least slightly suspicious. But then a second factor comes into play: if the foreigner speaks firmly and confidently our trust is restored. Interestingly, the two reactions come from different parts of the brain. But both are rooted in evolution: the first is the danger of the unknown, the second is our inbuilt respect for authority.
While our national habit of placing a speaker in his correct social group has relaxed somewhat in later generations, Professor John Honey’s Does Accent Matter? (1989) still has much to teach us. Older readers will also recall the U and non-U fuss, popularised by Nancy Mitford in the 1950s, listing vocabulary that distinguished the bourgeois from the upper classes – as in saying serviette as opposed to napkin. A lady whom I knew well, a descendant of a pre-Conquest family, specialised in working-class vocabulary, and exchanged vulgar postcards with her charlady. She warned me as a young man not to marry into the Royal Family, on the grounds that they were German upstarts. (The opportunity never arose.)
Appearance plays a large part in politics, too. There have been several studies – perhaps because they are relatively easy to do and are popular with newspapers. The political element is important. Think of Theresa May, Boris Johnson, Jeremy Corbyn and Jacob Rees-Mogg. While we know much about each of them, to what extent is our judgment made through the lens of their appearances? I cannot remember a single word spoken by Harold Wilson. Yet I retain a vivid picture of his face and his physical actions. His appearance drove deeper into my psyche than his values.
My trust in the objectivity of legal judgments was shaken when it was revealed that the verdicts of Israeli judges were influenced by how long it was since they had taken a meal break. And the evidence shows that attractive people are more likely to be found not guilty, more successful in legal claims, and likely to be awarded higher damages and instructed to pay lower damages.
If you feel immune to such biases, are you ever inclined to judge individual witnesses on the television news or documentaries as soon as they appear, and allow that immediate reaction to affect their credibility?
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