Research Roundup: Study Finds Perceptions of Speech Lead to Class Bias in Hiring

The narrative of the American Dream — of pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps — is a popular mythology in the U.S., but a recent Yale study found another roadblock in achieving this upward mobility: perceptions of social class based on speech during the hiring process.

This study, “Evidence for the reproduction of social class in brief speech” is by Michael W. Kraus, Brittany Torrez, Jun Won Park, and Fariba Ghayebi of the Yale School of Management. The authors found that people are able to guess with remarkable accuracy someone’s social class, race, age and gender by hearing just 15-20 seconds’ worth of out-of-context speech. They also found when it comes to social class — which the researchers defined through educational attainment, income and occupation status — hiring managers can make perceptions and snap judgments based on a subject’s speaking patterns, which could lead them to believe a person is less competent or less deserving of a higher salary.

The researchers drew their conclusions from five separate studies. The first four measured participants’ abilities to detect social class through speech. The researchers found the recitation of seven random words is enough for people to guess a person’s social class with above-chance accuracy. They also found and coded measures for “ideal” English speech based on social standards for pitch and pronunciation as well as digital examples of “ideal” speech exemplified through tech products like Siri and Amazon Alexa. Similarity to “ideal” speech is connected to both actual and perceived higher class. Additionally, the study shows the pronunciation of words plays a larger role in the perception of social class than word choice itself.

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