Mehrabian and nonverbal communication

by Olivia Mitchell

Mehrabian

Mehrabian

Mehrabian is often quoted as saying that the meaning of a message is communicated by:

  • Your words 7%
  • Your tone of voice 38%
  • Your body language 55%.

This interpretation of Mehrabian has been comprehensively debunked many times, but still it persists. In this post, I’m going to:

  1. Describe the experiments Mehrabian carried out, and
  2. Identify the limitations of Mehrabian’s research

Mehrabian’s experiments

The Mehrabian formula comes from two studies in nonverbal communication carried out by Mehrabian and two colleagues in 1967.

To summarize, Mehrabian’s studies asked participants to judge the feelings of a speaker by listening to a recording of a single word spoken in different tones of voice.

Yes, one single word.

In the first study, the participants had to rate the feelings of the speaker after listening to each of nine different words. The words spoken were often inconsistent with the tone of voice used. For example, the word “brute” spoken in a positive tone. Each time they had to make a rating just on the single word they had listened to.

In the second study, only one word was used. It was chosen to be as neutral as possible: the word was “maybe”. They listened to a recording of the word “maybe” said in different tones and at the same time were shown photos of different facial expressions.

It’s from these experiments that Mehrabian suggested – but did not prove – the formula. If you’d like more detail, I’ve described the experiments in more depth on this page: Mehrabian’s studies in nonverbal communication.

The limitations of Mehrabian’s formula

Mehrabian has himself attempted to limit the application of this formula:

Please note that this and other equations regarding relative importance of verbal and nonverbal messages were derived from experiments dealing with communications of feelings and attitudes (i.e., like-dislike). Unless a communicator is talking about their feelings or attitudes, these equations are not applicable.

In a personal email to Max Atkinson, reproduced in Max’s book “Lend me your Ears” Albert Mehrabian said:

I am obviously uncomfortable about misquotes of my work. From the very beginning I have tried to give people the correct limitations of my findings. Unfortunately the field of self-styled ‘corporate image consultants’ or ‘leadership consultants’ has numerous practitioners with very little psychological expertise. (31 October 2002)

So if we limit the formula to the specific conditions of the experiments, it is only applicable if:

  • a speaker is using only one word,
  • their tone of voice is inconsistent with the meaning of the word, and
  • the judgement being made is about the feelings of the speaker.

In other words, in the real world, Mehrabian’s formula is almost never applicable.

What do other researchers say

Mehrabian’s findings were frequently discussed in the psychological literature on nonverbal communication through the 1970s and 1980s. Researchers have made the following critiques of the methodology of his studies:

  1. They only used two or three people to do the speaking for the experiments.
  2. They take no account of the extent to which the speakers could produce the required tone of voice.
  3. They were artificial situations with no context.
  4. The communication model on which they were based, has now been shown to be too simple.
  5. They take no account of the characteristics of the observers making the judgements.
  6. The purpose of the experiments was not hidden from the participants.

For more detail on these critiques go to Mehrabian’s studies in nonverbal communication and scroll down.

The importance of delivery

I’m not saying that speech delivery is unimportant – it is. I think it can have a large impact on the credibility and persuasiveness of a speaker. I also consider content to be critical to credibility and persuasiveness. But I don’t think that their respective influences can be reduced to a formula.

Campaign to “Stop the Mehrabian Myth”

The main group of people who have propagated the Mehrabian myth are presentation trainers, public speaking coaches and other communications consultants. As a presentation trainer, I’m embarrassed that these figures are still being trotted out on a regular basis, when there is no substance to their real-world application. It’s damaging to the credibility of the training industry.

I’m also concerned about the persistence of the Myth because of the impact on presenters:

  1. The Mehrabian Myth puts unwarranted pressure on people who are nervous about speaking. They’ve been led to believe that their delivery can make or break their presentation. This is just not true. If they prepare well-organized valuable content and deliver it at least adequately they are likely to get their message across.
  2. The Mehrabian Myth leads some “wing-it” presenters to under-prepare their content under the misapprehension that so long as they can deliver with energy and dynamism they’ll get their message across. Again, not so.

That’s why I’m starting the “Stop the Mehrabian Myth” campaign.

Stop the spread of the myth

Many presentation trainers and public speaking coaches are doing their bit to stop the spread of the myth. These are the ones I’m aware of who have posts about it:

Lisa Braithwaite – The Truth about 7%-38%-55%

Andrew Abela – 93% of communication comes from non-verbal signs… or does it?

Joey Asher – Does what you actually say matter as much as how you look

Susan Trivers – Public speaking mistakes

John Windsor – Sacred cow tipping

Steve Denning – Dr Condoleeza Rice tells her story – form vs content

Alan Stevens -The 7% myth

Laura Fitton – The 3Vs disease

Jeff Bailey – Everything that you know about Mehrabian’s Rule may be wrong

Max Atkinson – Body language and nonverbal communication (Max has a brilliant cartoon demonstrating the absurdity of the myth)

Jon Thomas – Mehrabian’s rule and the puzzle that is presenting (I like this way of putting it “In whatever bubble that experiment took place in, I’m sure his findings were appropriate.  We don’t live in that bubble though, at least not in respect to presentations. “)

Martin Shovel – Mehrabian Nights – a tall tale about communication, in which common-sense is stretched almost to breaking point

Phil Jones – Mis-use of Mehrabian statistics

Simon Raybould – My 7% rant! (But 93% of it won’t work……apparently)

Andy Smith – 7%38%55% – The facts

MJ Plebon – It is all about the story

Chris Witt – Words, tone of voice and body language reconsidered

Justin O’Brien – Mehrabian

Bob Mathers – Mehrabian’s Myth – does bullshit kill or just discredit

Michael Parker- What you say or the way you say it

Stephanie WestAllen- What is the biggest communication myth – perhaps this one?

John Turner – Verbal, Vocal, Visual: Is Mehrabian Relevant?

Presentation experts against the myth (without a current blog post):

Kathy Reiffenstein

Todd List

Andrew Lightheart

Cliff Atkinson

Pat Shaughnessy

Steve Cherchers

Roger Courville

Marion Chapsal

Scott Berkun

Steve Roesler

James Feudo

Kristin Arnold

What can you do

If you come across a blog post or article on the internet which quotes Mehrabian’s formula as if it were true, comment on the post or write an email to the author. If you don’t have time to go into detail, just refer them to this post.

When you’re speaking with colleagues, should the myth ever be quoted, speak up and let people know the Mehrabian myth is false.

Bloggers

If you’d like to be added to the list above, let me know (write a comment below, e-mail me or tweet me). If you’ve got a post I can link to, do include that.

Write a post with your views on the Mehrabian myth, and let me know so that I can link to it.

Toastmasters

Deliver a speech on the Mehrabian myth to your club.

Update: I’ve written an extra post to respond to a secondary misinterpretation of Mehrabian that has come through in the comments: The secondary misinterpretation of Mehrabian’s research

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{ 84 comments… read them below or add one }

Pat Shaughnessy June 3, 2009 at 4:05 am

Hi Olivia,
Great article! I have been hearing “7% words” story all my professional life. The real focus for speakers should be to:

* Create excellent content,in story form
* Fix common mistakes, Uhms, Ahs,etc.
* Deliver with confidence

Lots of other things can be done, but with those basics the result will be a success. Message delivered.
Thanks
pat

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Roger Courville June 3, 2009 at 4:19 am

Touche! Add me to the list as I’ve been preaching against this for a long time!

To his credit, Weissman did note a limitation in Mehrabian’s stats (which is quite rare), though it wasn’t with the intent of debunking them in the manner of the “Stop the Myth” campaign. I am afraid, though, that culturally we are too quick to grasp that which appears to make our point, and statistics are much too carelessly re-quoted in such an effort.

I applaud the deeper expose’ of the myth in pursuit of helping presenters improve.

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Olivia Mitchell June 3, 2009 at 7:44 am

Hi Roger,

Yes Weismann did note Mehrabian’s limitation but then proceeded to ignore it. The rest of the chapter then attempts to “prove” 55-38-7 by giving us a series of anecdotes. And I’ve added you to the list above. Olivia

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Steve Cherches June 3, 2009 at 6:24 am

Great article, Olivia…! Thank you. I’ll do my part to spread the word…!

One benefit of the Mehrabian study is that it opens the door to a conversation about how those three components (words, body language, tone) impact our communication, and exposes the challenges in communication when we communicate through a medium in which those components are missing (email, twitter, phone, etc.).

That said, it is amazing how often the study is used (and misinterpreted) when the misinterpretations defy common sense. If we really bought into these misinterpretations, then learning mime would be much more valuable than learning presentation skills :)

(Note: using emoticon to compensate for absence of body language and tone :)

Thanks again… Steve

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Olivia Mitchell June 3, 2009 at 7:56 am

Hi Steve,
Yes, the Mehrabian study is a great way to introduce the idea of the importance of nonverbal communication – no doubt part of the reason for its longevity! Olivia (love the emoticons)

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Todd Cherches June 3, 2009 at 7:14 am

Excellent, well-researched and well-written post! The “Mehrabian Myth” is a great example of a classic untruth that continues to be perpetuated simply because it makes for a good story. The fact that it consistently draws the requisite “oohs and A-ha’s” from participants makes us look like we really know our stuff (truth and accuracy be damned!).

The fact, as you so nicely point out, that this “classic study” is continuously misinterpreted, misunderstood, misconstrued, misapplied, and miscommunicated appears to be irrelevant (or unknown) to most people who reference it. It’s so ingrained in us as trainers that it’s nearly impossible to talk about Communication without reference to the classic study by the famous Dr. M. of UCLA.(Uh-oh, someone just brought up the subject of body language! I have no other choice… must… mention… Mehrabian…55-38-7, 55-38-7…)

Keep up the good work. When you’re done, let’s move on to misunderstandings, misinterpretations, and misapplications of DeBono, and others…! :)

Todd Cherches
Liquidnet Leadership Institute

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Olivia Mitchell June 3, 2009 at 7:51 am

Hi Todd,
I agree with your point about the attractiveness of the figures to trainers. I think it’s one of the reasons for the persistence of the myth. I’ll look at this more in my third post in this series on why the myth is so sticky. Olivia

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Lisa Braithwaite June 3, 2009 at 7:41 am

Olivia, thanks for taking this on and hopefully starting a movement! I’ve heard so many trainers quote this and other statistics (don’t get me started on ‘people fear public speaking more than death’) where there is no basis in legitimate, current research. They don’t bother to check their facts, content to robotically repeat the same BS over and over.

Now I’ll go read your more in-depth article!

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Max Atkinson June 3, 2009 at 9:11 am

Great to hear that some of the debunking of I did of non-verbal myths in ‘Lend Me Your Ears’ is getting wider support. There’s a great cartoon that sums it all up, which I’ll post on my blog as soon as I can dig it out. And while on the subject of modern myths in the training world, how long before a few more people wake up to the fact that there is about as much evidence behind NLP as there is for Scientology?

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Justin O'Brien June 3, 2009 at 10:51 am

Thanks Olivia,
This reminds me of another statistic from the Wharton School of Business that is touted by an international training company. I have never been able to find the actual research – I think that’s because it doesn’t exist. The supposed study says that “impressions” come from words 7%, the “who” factor 43% and the “how” factor 50%.
An article worth reading on Mehrabian’s work can be found at: http://www.businessballs.com/mehrabiancommunications.htm

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Olivia Mitchell June 5, 2009 at 9:04 pm

Hi Justin
Thanks for linking to the businessballs article on Mehrabian’s research. The author has made a strong point that the Mehrabian research should not be over-simplified and applied to all communications. However, he/she has made several misinterpretations themselves eg: including body language and assuming that the participants in the experiment were attempting to discern meaning from the communication. I think the research is even more limited than portrayed by this article.

Those Wharton School of Business studies sound suspiciously like they’ve been extrapolated from Mehrabian!

Olivia

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Bert Decker June 3, 2009 at 12:57 pm

Good post Olivia, and adds to the discussion, but I think (and feel!) it misses the mark. He is not “just plain wrong,” but too often misinterpreted.

In the 80’s I interviewed Mehrabian and wrote about him in my newsletter, and he said then as he does now – many people abuse his research. He was not investigating the ‘cognitive’ impact of the three dimensions in an absolute sense, but the trust and believability created at the feeling level in an INCONSISTENT message. I don’t think you emphasize the inconsistent message enough, and it is critical because most business messages are inconsistent. That is the significance of his research – and it is on the mark. You have to have trust to have believability, which is the critical issue, and that is determined at the feeling level.

But a comment here is too brief to respond fully – I’ll do a post on this shortly at http://www.deckerblog.com. [Update from Olivia: Bert has now published his post: The visual dominates - Mehrabian revisited. And I've written another post to respond to Bert's post: The secondary misinterpretation of Mehrabian's research].

And I don’t feel that all the negative energy to debunk Mehrabian is well placed. He is an excellent professor, researcher and writer and actually did a great service in helping people to realize there is so much more to presenting than thinking “if I say the words people will get it.”

Actually I agree with Max Atkinson – if you want to take on myths that have no basis in scientific research, it would be far more fruitful to take on NLP.

Bert
@BertDecker

(PS: If this is a second comment forgive me, the first one never showed up here.)

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Olivia Mitchell June 4, 2009 at 11:54 am

Hi Bert
I totally respect Mehrabian. I’m not attacking him – I am saying that the misinterpretations of his data are wrong.

Regarding your point that his experiment was about trust and believability:

The observers in the experiments were asked to judge whether the speaker liked or disliked the person they were speaking to. The observers weren’t asked whether they trusted or believed the speaker.

I think there is a difference between liking/disliking and trust and believability. For example, I might dislike a person but still trust that they mean what they say.

I agree with you about NLP. I’ve explored NLP briefly in this post http://www.speakingaboutpresenting.com/nervousness/public-speaking-fear-nlp/. As you’ll see I’m fairly scathing.

Looking forward to your post :-) .
Olivia

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Lisa Braithwaite June 3, 2009 at 4:27 pm

After Bert’s comment, I want to clarify that I also am not looking to debunk Mehrabian’s work, but to point out the misinterpretation of it among speakers and trainers. I believe his work has its merits, and inconsistency in communication is indeed an issue to be addressed. But again, my issue is with the misinterpretation of the research, not the research itself. I hope that’s clear in my blog posts on the subject!

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Laura Bergells June 4, 2009 at 1:16 am

I’m cool w/misinterpreting Mehrabian.

Had he been consistent with his content, body language, & tone of voice, his message might have been clearer!

(Appreciate the irony? ;)

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Olivia Mitchell June 5, 2009 at 11:24 am
Jeff June 4, 2009 at 6:11 am

I believe that Mehrabian’s work is very valuable. What I can’t believe is how so many people misinterpret it.

I believe that the misinterpretation sounds good and it’s shocking — “My words only matter 7%!” — that gives it impact. It (the misinterpretation) is easy to remember so it tends to be sticky. It (the misinterpretation) is actionable, “I should work on my slides more than the words I use!” People want easy; they don’t want to put work into it. Maybe the misinterpretation feeds on the laziness of most presenters and that is why so many people get it wrong. Take this to an extreme and you begin to see why the presentation world is in it’s current state.

Back to the real Mehrabian research: It all gets down to what Bert Decker says in his outstanding book “You Must Be Believed to Be Heard.” In order to be heard, you must be believed. In order to be believed your words, tone and body language must be consistent with your message. Mehrabian got that right. Those other folks didn’t.

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Olivia Mitchell June 5, 2009 at 11:23 am

Hi Jeff
Mehrabian’s work is valuable in that it started off a line of inquiry into the relative influences of various types of nonverbal cues in communication.

But Mehrabian’s research was not about and did not explore the effect of inconsistency between verbal and nonverbal cues on whether the speaker is believed.

I agree with you about the reasons for the misinterpretation being so persistent – it’s an interesting case study of “stickiness”.

Olivia

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Dr. Jim Anderson June 4, 2009 at 8:01 am

Finally! Thanks for pointing out that everyone’s been hiding behind the wrong numbers for far too long!

Of course, this does bring up the interesting point of how to get your message to “stick”. Yes, it does mean that words / body language /tone are all important. However, what’s even more important is that your audience is made up of people who all learn in different ways. Some are verbal learners, some visual, and some need to “feel” what you are saying.

This means that you need to cover all three bases in your talk in order to impact everyone in your audience. Not easy, but still doable…!

- Dr. Jim Anderson
The Accidental Communicator Blog
“Learn How To intimately connect with your audience in order to make an lasting impact in their lives.”

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Olivia Mitchell June 5, 2009 at 11:16 am

Hi Jim
Interesting that you should bring up learning styles… the science behind learning styles is not too rigorous. Check out these links:

Visual, Auditory, Kinesthetic from Chris Witt
Do Visual, Auditory, and Kinesthetic Learners Need Visual, Auditory, and Kinesthetic Instruction? from Cognitive Scientist Daniel Willingham

and finally my own offering on the subject:

The myth of learning styles

That’s not to say, that it’s not effective to offer content in different modalities eg: verbal, visual etc, but that the reasoning for that is not that people have different learning styles. It’s that all of us learn better when information is presented in the style best suited to that information. Also experiencing it in different ways helps too.

So I agree with your conclusion – cover all your bases – but not the reasoning behind it. Olivia

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Susan Trivers June 6, 2009 at 12:02 am

Hi Olivia,

I’m glad you’re making a strong pushback against relying on the Mehrabian formula. So very many business speakers underestimate what it takes to design, write and deliver a business speech that makes a difference to their audiences–and also to themselves and their businesses. They rationalize their lack of preparation with the myth.

I’ve worked with knowledgable business speakers who are passionate about their audiences and their content but who have little natural ‘flair’ or ‘style’–yet they mesmerize their audiences time and again and motivate those audiences to take action. What makes them powerful speakers is the content–when it is great, their style barely registers.

One enemy of great speaking is settling for being good enough, and the other is “that’s what everyone else does”–meaning why should I try harder to do better?

I’m glad to be part of a community of speaking coaches who are committed to helping their clients be great for every audience, every time.

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Olivia Mitchell June 8, 2009 at 8:22 am

Hi Susan
Yes, one of the insidious consequences of the myth is that the less-motivated presenter has an excuse not to focus on preparing logical and valuable content. Olivia

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Steve Roesler June 7, 2009 at 3:06 am

Way to go, Olivia.

The myth is so well-ingrained that I have a fellow who delivers one of our presentation workshops who can’t “not” somehow mention it, even though we’ve had the conversation a million times and it is nowhere in out materials.

It’s as if there is mystical hold that just won’t let go of some people regardless of the evidence.

Now I’m going to have to do a post on it. I’m in.

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Olivia Mitchell June 7, 2009 at 8:12 am

Thanks Steve, I’ve added your name to the list. I’ll add the link to your post when you publish it. Olivia

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James Feudo June 8, 2009 at 7:34 am

Hi Olivia,

As usual, I completely agree with you here. I’ve seen this myth in a number of published books (including best sellers).

Like you, I find it frustrating that many “experts” of public speaking propogate this myth. Anyone that’s given more than a couple speeches knows that this is nonsense.

Keep up the battle and count me in as one of the bloggers against this myth (I’ll post on this as well).

James

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Olivia Mitchell June 8, 2009 at 8:23 am

Hi James, I’ve added you to the list above and I look forward to your post. Olivia

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simon - presentations training in the UK June 9, 2009 at 8:00 pm

Yippee…. Olivia you’ve started my day on a high. I’ve been banging on about this for years and feeling like I’m pushing water uphill. It’s been (literally!) years since I blogged about it but you’ve done such a better job than my rant.

Thank you!

There’s a reference to NLP in the comments – and it was via an NLP ‘Master Practitioner’ that I first heard the mis-interpretation. I’m sure there are SOME good things in NLP but I must admit this started me off on a bad footing with it! ;)

Simon

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Andy Smith June 9, 2009 at 11:22 pm

Hi Olivia,

Great couple of articles – the second one in particular really brought home an important distinction. Please add me to your list of ‘stop the myth’ campaigners – I wrote a blog post about it last year: http://www.manchesternlp.com/blog/7-38-55-the-facts.html

Best wishes,
Andy Smith

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Olivia Mitchell June 10, 2009 at 7:06 am

Hi Andy
I’ve added you to the list in my post. Thanks for your comments about my post in your post :-) . Olivia

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Andy Smith September 27, 2012 at 4:58 am

Hi Olivia,
I’ve rather carelessly moved blog platforms (it would have saved a lot of bother if I’d started with Wordpress in the first place) so my article is now at http://coachingleaders.co.uk/7-38-55-the-facts/

Best wishes,
Andy Smith

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Bob Mathers June 22, 2009 at 11:45 pm

Dear Olivia,
I don’t usually write on websites but felt it important to acknowledge that your site and the level of peer debate are among the best I have come across. As a management trainer I have blown many a gasket in frustration as colleagues have trotted out the old 7/38/55 without thinking, as if statistics could explain everything on their own.

A propos the lack of critical thinking around, many years ago I attended an 8-day NLP course in London led by the great man, Bandler, himself and have to confess that I have since never used any of what I heard. I was clearly not intelligent enough to get it, or was it that the emperor simply had no clothes?

For me, the idea behind teaching is that you need to understand your material thoroughly and if you don’t, you shouldn’t be passing off the half understood stuff you pick up. A little learning is, indeed, a dangerous thing.

I’ve posted on the Myth, by the way, and quoted you – http://www.doccomms.com/blog – so does that mean I’m now one of the gang?

Kind regards,

Bob Mathers

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Olivia Mitchell June 23, 2009 at 6:36 am

Thank you Bob, for your comments about this site – and thank you to all my peers (including you, Bob) that do make it a stimulating place to hang out. You’re one of the gang – I’ve added the link to you post.
Look forward to hearing more from you now that you’ve contributed once! Olivia

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Max Atkinson June 23, 2009 at 10:34 am

And here’s another similarly widespread myth: folded arms = defensiveness, for more on which, see latest posting at http://maxatkinson.blogspot.com/2009/06/body-language-non-verbal-communication.html

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Max Atkinson June 25, 2009 at 9:27 pm

Anyone who enjoyed the previous non-verbal communication cartoon I posted might like to know that I’ve just posted another one at http://maxatkinson.blogspot.com/2009/06/another-body-language-non-verbal_25.html – which includes further food for thought about the ‘words we actually use’ …

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Max Atkinson June 29, 2009 at 12:20 am

As a sequel to the cartoons I posted on the subject, I’ve just posted two versions of a short video from a famous Margaret Thatcher speech in 1980, along with a little test for purveyors of the Mehrabian myth (at http://maxatkinson.blogspot.com/2009/06/margaret-thatcher-body-language-and-non.html).

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Marjan July 6, 2009 at 8:49 am

Thank you for this excellent post. It has been a pet peeve of mine for the longest time. It only goes to show that people read what they want to read. And they have a particular love for specifics!

Albert Mehrabian’s research has never staked this claim. It’s indeed one of the biggest misconceptions in this field… to do my tiny part in killing of this myth, I’ve stressed this misconception on my site as well. Not as well-researched as this post… but my site aims to keep things simple. And correct.

Thanks!

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Olivia Mitchell July 15, 2009 at 7:12 am

Hi Marjan
It’s great to have lots of people posting on this issue. In looking at your article I did pick up on another misinterpretation (http://www.simplybodylanguage.com/what-is-body-language.html) which is very easy to make. You say the research “…was about what makes people like or dislike someone, and why.” The research was about how an external observer judged whether the speaker disliked or liked the person they were speaking to.

I do agree with making things simple wherever possible, and I have struggled with how to explain the research as simply as possible. In this case, simplifying can lead to fudging important distinctions. Olivia

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Caroline July 16, 2009 at 2:28 am

Hi Olivia – would it be ok if I did a summary or paraphrase of this blogpost in German on my blog (of course linking it to your entry here)?! Unluckily the Mehrabian Myth is very common among German communication coaches…

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Olivia Mitchell July 16, 2009 at 3:15 am

Hi Caroline – that would be fine. Olivia

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Stephanie West Allen August 26, 2009 at 3:04 am
Simon Raybould August 26, 2009 at 8:37 pm

Hi – the man himself recently did a short interview about this very subject for the BBC. Check here.

In short he says “My work was taken out of context and can’t be generalised the way way some people have pretended.” :)

S

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Colin McLean October 24, 2009 at 10:59 am

Olivia, your excellent blogs have been widely quoted and signposted in my recent discussions, e-mails, tweets and even more recent Body Language Seminar. Not altogether frivolously I wondered if the growing clan of champions might not muster under the banner of the ‘Mehrabian Knights’. We are, after all, concerned to set his research in its proper light rather than discredit it. That’s clear. So, anyone got a suitable heraldic device in mind?

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David Fetterman June 24, 2010 at 8:19 am

One publication that I haven’t seen mentioned in discussions of the Mehrabian Myth is Psychology Today, a popular magazine targeted at non-psychologists. Mehrabian published an article in Psychology Today in 1968. I suspect this article may have had more to do with the myth getting started than his work in academic journals – after all, how many public speaking coaches read the Journal of Consulting Psychology?

Here is an excerpt from his article in Psychology Today:
“Suppose you are sitting in my office listening to me describe some research I have done on communication. I tell you that feelings are communicated less by the words a person uses than by certain nonverbal means – that, for example, the verbal part of a spoken message has considerably less effect on whether a listener feels liked or disliked than a speaker’s facial expression or tone of voice.
So far so good. But suppose I add, ‘In fact, we’ve worked out a formula that shows exactly how much each these components contributes to the effect of the message as a whole. It goes like this: Total Impact equals .07 verbal +.38 vocal + .55 facial.’”

Not only did his results reach a more general audience this way, but stated in this manner, it is easy to see how readers could have misunderstood that his research had broad implications for interpersonal communications.

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Olivia Mitchell June 25, 2010 at 2:31 pm

Hi David
Yes, I agree with you that some of the ways that Mehrabian himself has stated his conclusions have led to the misunderstandings. In his 1972 book “Silent Messages” there’s an equation which is easy to misinterpret if you don’t grasp the context. And with your example if you were to just quote the last paragraph you have the pure form of the Mehrabian Myth!

Thanks for digging up that article.
Olivia

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Julieta June 30, 2010 at 6:16 am

Hello Olivia!

I’m quoting your website in a paper. Can you tell me the year of this article? Thanks!

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Olivia Mitchell June 30, 2010 at 8:18 pm

Hi Julieta
I published this post on 2 June 2009. Go well with writing your paper.
Olivia

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Memo the Mime April 27, 2011 at 7:50 am

I take offense to the Mime rethoric. I am a professional Mime and yes, 7%-38%-55% us true and factual and does exist. Right now you can’t see me but I am gesturing with my middle finger. Only the way a Mime can and thus utilizing the 55% part very effectively. Dam you all (I am gesturing… I know you can’t see it but trust me I am.). Long live Mehrabian!!! You are all haters. Hate talk is all this is. (Can you tell I am a Liberal?). :0)
Memo the Mime.

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smriti ahuja February 16, 2012 at 3:35 pm

thank you for taking the time to post these clarifications and the links. i am one of those who has been fed on the myth and i was astonished and confused when i first saw the % break up. like somebody pointed out it completely debunked the content and played momentous emphasis on non verbal. thank you once again. for me finally my personal experience is validated

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Andrew Scott June 7, 2012 at 12:00 am

Just a note to say I blogged on this a while back, too: http://ascotttraining.blogspot.co.uk/2010/08/max-atkinson-de-bunking.html

I work a lot in Universities, and found on a flipchart as I entered a training room… you guessed it:

Words: 7% (etc)

In a Research-intensive University!

Words fail me (but you should see my gestures!)

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Allen Oliver September 1, 2012 at 12:40 am

Thanks,
Obviously there is a huge movement against the misinterpretation/misuse of the 7/38/55 finding, but it seems to me that an important part of communication is congruency between what you say and how you say it, ie tone and body language and the feeling from many of the commentators and “mehrabian knights”, not just here, is now the opposite, that is as long as you have great content it doesn’t matter how you say it, you’ll get you message across effectively. My experience suggests that’s not completely correct either.
What research is there on the value, or lack of value, in congruency?

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Niek October 10, 2012 at 11:26 pm

Hi!

As most of the commenters have, I also heard a lot of people talking about the 7%. Most of the time I sent those people to your website, but since last week I decided te write my own article about it. If you want you can at the article to your list, but it is written in Dutch. It’s easier to convince people in their own language ;-)

http://www.visionair.nl/ideeen/misvattingen/de-waarheid-achter-non-verbale-communicatie/

Thanks in advance!

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Alan Ramsay December 17, 2012 at 7:06 am

On a similar note, there is a commonly heard statistic saying that two thirds of communication is non-verbal. I have never been able to find a source for this statistic. Any ideas where it came from?

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Sinay March 4, 2013 at 4:26 am

Hi Olivia!

Thank you so much for sharing this article.

I actually have a website that promotes the study of nonverbal communication and body language to improve one’s communication skills. But, I was always baffled myself by this mysterious formula.
Because I didn’t found any reliable source to prove it, I never referred to the significance of body language in our communication in terms of numbers.

I still do believe that body language plays a very significant role in face to face communication, but it’s purpose is often quite different: if the main aim of the verbal message is to provide the exact technical info, the nonverbal signs are used deliver a certain “flavor” to that content, not to actually replace it.

Again, thank you for this share, I will post myself an article to spread the word.

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Niels March 29, 2013 at 4:20 pm

Although you are completely right with the fact that mehrabian 7, 38, 55 is misunderstood i still think that body language and tone of voice makes all the difference in (sales)communication. As a face-2-face sales trainer i teach people the same stuff over and over again. My experience is that the way you present a verbal message can make it exciting, boring, crystal clear or misunderstood…

Head nodding, a 45 degree body angle, smiling, a firm stance and palms up are key elements in a perfect sales pitch.

What about a new experiment? Which one is more effective? A poor verbal salespitch with excellent non verbal communication versus a verbally perfect salespitch with poor non verbal communication?

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Steve Brand April 1, 2013 at 6:05 pm

Hi,

I’ve studied Merhabian’s work and experiments, and you are no doubt factually correct about how he conducted the research and its limitations. The difficulty you, and all your followers have, is that you don’t have a viable alternative for what is commonly referred to as the 55% body language element. Instead, you use euphemisms such as ‘deliver with confidence’……. But how does one (non-verbally) demonstrate confidence….? Body language, peut-être?

With more than 30 years as a corporate L&D manager and director, I have yet to see a better, substantiated model which helps people appreciate the importance of congruence….. getting the body language, the tone of voice and the words acting in harmony with each other…. and the relative importance of each. The percentages may or may not be absolutely perfect, but the relative importance, in my experience, is not far off.

For example, I have been horrified by the number of University lecturers I have witnessed (to site just one example) – all good, intelligent, clever people with important messages to convey – failing abysmally to engage the audience. Quite simply, they would have made more impact if they had simply written the message down and given it to the audience….. which is what a lot of them do!

If you want to appreciate the impact of non-verbal communication, read Tricia Pricket’s great piece of research demonstrating the ‘power to influence’ of a ‘good handshake’. A short summary of her research is as follows…..

“Tricia Prickett decided that she wanted to use the interview videotapes and the evaluations that had been collected, to test out the adage that “the handshake is everything.”

She took fifteen seconds of videotape showing the applicant as he or she knocks on the door, comes in, shakes the hand of the interviewer, sits down, and the interviewer welcomes the person,” Then, Prickett got a series of strangers to rate the applicants based on the handshake clip, using the same criteria that the interviewers had used. Once more, against all expectations, the ratings were very similar to those of the interviewers. “On nine out of the eleven traits the applicants were being judged on, the observers significantly predicted the outcome of the interview. The strength of the correlations was extraordinary.”

The full document can be found at http://www.gladwell.com/2000/2000_05_29_a_interview.html

So while I have sympathy for your argument, I cannot fully buy into it, until you, or one of your followers comes up with something better…….. at which point you will no doubt be in line as next Professor Emeritus of Psychology, UCLA. :-)

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Simon Raybould April 2, 2013 at 9:41 pm

Hi Steve.

Why?

I can tell you that 5000 MPH is too high for the speed limit in a city and you’d agree, right. I don’t need to be able to tell you it’s 20 MPH or 30 MPH for us to agree that 5000 MPH is wrong.

Why do you need us to be able to tell you what the *right* percentage is, once we’ve shown that 7% is wrong. There’s no logic to that position.

I can see you broader point though, which is, as I understand it “Okay, if it isn’t 7%, what is it? Anyone got any better statistics?”. The short answer is “It depends on context too much to generalise like that”… just as the good prof himself says! ;)

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Steve Brand April 2, 2013 at 11:27 pm

An interesting hypothesis, Simon….. To continue using your own analogy…..

There was recently a nationwide advertising campaign on UK TV which sought to control the speed of cars in built-up areas to maximum 30 MPH. It had extremely disturbing visuals, with a very uncomfortable sound track. At more than 30MPH the child is hit by the car and dies a twisted wreak of a body. All in slow-motion. The exact same scene is then repeated with the car travelling at less than 30 MPH (interestingly, with a different sound track!) and the child, whilst injured, survives with relatively minor injuries – a broken leg.

If the words alone were sufficient “Drive at less than 30MPH to ensure a child doesn’t die when you hit them”, then there would be no need for the graphics (visuals, non-verbals, body language – call them what you will) or sound track. The point is, that the receiver must not only hear and understand the message (words), they have to believe and act on it. The visuals reinforce the message. Congruence.

Take the word “Fire” for example. If I walk slowly out of my office quietly saying ‘Fire’ in a pleasant, controlled, gentle, polite manner, most people would not move a muscle – at least not immediately. My tone of voice and body language do not support the words….. and therefore, they do not act on / believe my words. The message that the body language and tone of voice are giving the receiver, overwhelms the words – by a huge margin. No congruence.

If, however, my intention is to get them off their seats and out the door pronto, then I not only say the word ‘Fire’, but I also use a tone of voice (loud, urgent) and a body language (running???) that supports the word I am saying. They get up and leg it. Congruence.

So whilst the detail of the Merhabian’s numbers may not be fixed for every situation (take away the visuals when using a telephone, for example), it does give insight into the relative importance of the three elements in many (not all) situations.

And that really, is all that I am pointing out. Don’t dismiss Merhabian’s work on the sterile grounds that it was just a laboratory experiment. My 30 plus years in this game suggests that there is quite a lot that we can postulate from that one small experiment. And the people who suggest otherwise should put some effort into building, modifying, updating or replacing his results…. rather than simply dismissing it as irrelevant or invalid. :-)

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Simon Raybould April 3, 2013 at 11:37 pm

Hi Steve

You’re setting up an Aunty Sally. I’m not dismissing the Prof’s work (he seems a nice chap by the way) because it was just a laboratory experiment. Far from it. My own background is 24 years in research so I fully understand the pros and cons of research better than most!

What we’re saying here is that it was a great lab experiment but that was all it was. Prof Al himself says you can’t generalise from the lab to the real world with this particular bit of work.

No one has pretended that words are everything. Why are you saying we are? All we’re doing is reacting against the bollocks spouted by many (NLPers, for example) that the 7% thing is *right*. It might be right, we simply don’t know. No one does. I’m on top of this research at the moment, ‘cos of staying in touch withe my research friends and you’d be amazed at how complicated it all is.

On a different note, though related – your example above is a good one, for emotional content. That’s fair enough, ‘cos that’s what Al was looking at in his experiments but that’s not what people who propound the 7% myth are saying: they’re pretending that 7% of ALL meaning is not in the words… not just the emotional meaning.

As that’s not what the research says, what annoys me about these people is that they’re simply lie-ing. (Or stupid! :) )

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David Fetterman April 4, 2013 at 4:01 am

Steve says, “The percentages may or may not be absolutely perfect, but the relative importance, in my experience, is not far off.” He implies that the issue is with the accuracy of the numbers Mehrabian assigned to each aspect of communication, or with “dismiss[ing] Merhabian’s work on the sterile grounds that it was just a laboratory experiment.” These are not the reasons the Mehrabian Myth is a myth.
Let us be clear:
The myth represents a generalization for which there is no basis. After reading Steve’s comments and rereading some of the other comments, I have become aware of something I did not appreciate when I commented on this thread several years ago. In that comment, I implied that Mehrabian was largely to blame for the myth because he had stated a potentially misleading interpretation of his results in a popular journal.
I now understand that Mehrabian was not to blame. He simply assumed, as any scientist would, that his readers would understand the concept of nongeneralization. To anyone with scientific or rhetorical training, that is a fundamental principle, the violation of which is a clear fallacy (specifically, a hasty generalization).
But not everyone is a trained scientist or rhetorician. Hence…the Mehrabian Myth.
Therefore, I will state an axiom of experimental science: The results of an experiment are confined to the specific context of the experiment and may not, without some other experimental basis, be extended to other or broader contexts.
A corollary to this rule: If the researcher himself defines the limitations of the experiment, it is not scientifically valid, nor is it respectful of the researcher, to ignore those limitations and create your own.
As stated in the original blog post, Mehrabian said:
“Please note that this and other equations regarding relative importance of verbal and nonverbal messages were derived from experiments dealing with communications of feelings and attitudes (i.e., like-dislike). Unless a communicator is talking about their feelings or attitudes, these equations are not applicable.”
That’s the bottom line. It is not about accuracy. It is not about “dismiss[ing] Merhabian’s work on the sterile grounds that it was just a laboratory experiment.” It is about understanding the limitations of that experiment, as Mehrabian himself explained, and not fallaciously generalizing it to other contexts to make the experiment prove what you want it to prove.

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Steve Brand April 4, 2013 at 5:48 pm

Guys. I appreciate your attachment to debunking the Merhabian myth and, from a purely controlled, scientific, experimental perspective, you are absolutely correct to point out that “The results of an experiment are confined to the specific context of the experiment and may not, without some other experimental basis, be extended to other or broader contexts.” Scientifically correct. ? I agree. There. I’ve said it :-)

What you seem to be missing in this debate, is that I said “I have yet to see a better, substantiated model which helps people appreciate the importance of congruence….. getting the body language, the tone of voice and the words acting in harmony with each other…. and the relative importance of each.”

The key word here is Congruence. And by that I mean the non-verbals (BL and Voice) have to work in harmony with the words; or the words won’t be heard.

There are just too many examples of this in the real world. One easy to appreciate example (you’ve all seen this) is to rapidly project the names of colours (e.g. Orange, Yellow, Blue, etc.) but with the actual colour of the text contrasting (e.g. Green, Red, Pink, etc.) – and then asking the students to say the word….. not the colour of the text! It’s really quite hard to do…….

Why???

Because in the real world, our reliance on non-verbals, is so powerful, that they frequently override the intended meaning of the words.

I am a pilot. I have many times in the simulator (and in the real world too, unfortunately) had to deal with ‘Spacial Disorientation’. It is a classic training event, where the pilot closes his/her eyes while the aircraft is put into a series of manoeuvres designed to disorientate the pilot and confuse the balance sensory organs. Being in cloud, and with no external visual references to guide him/her (i.e. no sky or ground to help with orientation), the only way of knowing which way is “up”, is by absolute adherence to flying the aircraft using the instruments alone. It is one of the most disabling and confusing experience you can possible have. Your whole body is screaming Pull-Up, Turn Left, whatever, while the instruments your eyes are seeing are telling you Push-down, Turn right, etc.

The point is, the words/figures on the instruments are saying one thing, but all other indications are telling you something else….. and it is extremely difficult to trust the words/figures…… It’s why so many aircraft crash into mountains while in cloud. It is not the instruments that are wrong – they don’t know if they are in cloud or not – it is the pilot who refuses to believe and act on them, because of the over-riding power of other (non-verbal!) influences.

So back to the point. The words are all important. They are, after all, the message that needs to be conveyed. I hope we can agree on that. But in order for the words to be believed and acted upon, we need congruence – the nonverbals must support and augment the verbals (words)…. or else the audience will find it difficult to ‘hear’ and act on the words.

And what percentage impact do the nonverbals have on the receiver? I can’t say for sure. But I do know they can be very powerful indeed. And in my real world experience (no scientific basis, I agree), they could be as high as 80% or 90%……

Last point. Watch Hard-Talk on BBC TV or listen to it on the BBC Radio. They do some great interviews of politicians from around the world. Try and listen to their words (“I did not have sexual relations with that woman”) and ask yourself if you believe what they are saying….. And if not, why not…… is it that their Body Language and Tone of Voice are not in congruence with their Words?? ?

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