Why do we have accents? Why do people lie? Why do we find symmetry so attractive? ‘Deeply Human’ answers all these questions and more

Science February 21, 2022
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“Deeply Human” is devoted to understanding human behavior. It constantly asks: why do we do what we do? Hosted by musician and writer Dessa, this podcast looks at what lies behind our behavior. It’s explored the phenomenon of deja vu, the psychology of lying, the psychology of sex, the science behind attractiveness, and more. And as of Friday, February 18, it is back with its much anticipated second season.

A podcast from BBC World Service, iHeartMedia, and American Public Media, “Deeply Human” released its first, 12-episode season in February of 2021. Episodes combined expert scientific and psychological knowledge with moving personal stories, discussing topics from the scientific mystery that is the female orgasm to less objective subjects like death. Episodes are a sweet 24 and a half minutes long.

Thankfully, we are in for one hell of a ride with “Deeply Human’s” second season. We’re talking monogamy. We’re talking high fashion. We’re talking social hierarchies; “Deeply Human” is speaking with psychologists, animal behaviorists, mathematicians, historians, and even a legendary DJ about our favorite topic: us.

What’s in an accent?

The first episode of this second season focuses in on the ever-fascinating world of accents and dialects. Why is it so endearing for Americans to hear a young child with a deeply British accent? Okay, that’s not a question being answered in this episode, but guests like John Baugh, President of the Linguistics Society of America and a Professor at Washington University in St. Louis, is answering far more important questions about speech! In fact, John is sometimes called upon by lawyers for what’s known as “linguistics forensics,” legal analysis of speech to help solve crimes. More than once, he’s served as an expert witness on murder cases.

He became interested in linguistic profiling in the ’90s, specifically while he was hunting for apartments. Linguistic profiling is the act of analyzing a person’s speech or writing (so it can also be used for ransom notes) but especially to assist characterizing someone to a particular group or subgroup. Baugh would call landlords about available apartments, but when he would show up to the meeting, he would be told that there were no more open units. Now, Baugh is African American, and while these landlords weren’t explicitly saying that they refused him due to his race, he had a sneaking suspicion since he knows people can’t possibly know that from his professional voice. So, he decided to run a little experiment, changing his accent with each call.

Unsurprisingly, he found that landlords were screening out potential renters whose accents implied they were from minority communities. The discrimination was particularly bad in affluent neighborhoods, but this is actually an international problem. He has done this experiment in South Africa, Brazil, France, and other countries with the same results.

And this isn’t just a race and ethnicity problem. Studies have shown that women calling about openings for executive positions are more likely to be told that the position has already been filled, while men calling about those same positions are told that it is still open. Gay men have reported being denied services because of the way they speak.

Dialects vs. Accents

Throughout the rest of the episode, Dessa explores how where we live, even by just a few miles, can drastically shape the way we speak. From tone to pronunciation, to rhythm and particularities in our vocabularies, these are all parts of our own dialects, shaped not only by where we are from but by all sorts of fine-tuned markers.

Dessa learns how languages actually effect how babies cry, as well as how languages and dialects have evolved through documented “shifts.” She talks about identity and how people use accents to change the way they are perceived and the odd practice of chefs not changing their accents as a way to hold onto their identities.

“Deepy Human” is a deeply fascinating show that tells us more about ourselves than we ever thought possible. Dessa explores all facets of human behavior, using our own selfish (and entirely human) desires to learn more about our own selves through captivating research results and moving personal anecdotes. It reminds us of podcasts like “The Happiness Lab with Dr. Laurie Santos” and “Hidden Brain.” Be sure to tune in for the second season of “Deeply Human” as more episodes are released on Fridays.

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