Misrepresenting Mehrabian

Here's an old saw: "Studies show that only seven percent of our communication comes from words. The rest comes from nonverbal cues—38 percent from vocal cues such as tone of voice, and 55 percent from body language." I've heard that hundreds of times, but until yesterday I'd never seen a source for those figures.

I learned yesterday, through an online forum about training and coaching, that the "seven percent" claim is a misrepresentation of studies conducted by Albert Mehrabian. I decided to find out what Mehrabian himself had to say. I searched the web and found that in the few cases where people give a source for the claim, they cite Mehrabian's book Silent Messages. I hopped into my car and drove to the CSUS library, near where I live, to research this.

In Silent Messages, Mehrabian gives the following equation:

Total Liking = 7% Verbal Liking + 38% Vocal Liking + 55% Facial Liking

Next, he briefly describes related research by other people about other communication and feelings. Based on that, he generalizes from liking to "all feelings":

Total Feeling = 7% Verbal Feeling + 38% Vocal Feeling + 55% Facial Feeling

In Silent Messages, Mehrabian refers to more detailed descriptions of his research in another book, Nonverbal Communication.

Nonverbal Communication describes Mehrabian's research. He constructed a number of inconsistent messages about feelings. Each message included three specific components: specific words, specific vocal qualities, and specific facial expressions. Each component was designed to convey a specific attitude (positive or negative) and a specific strength (e.g. strong liking or mild disliking). Mehrabian constructed inconsistent messages by combining components of differing strengths and attitudes.

Mehrabian observed people giving and receiving these mixed messages, and assessed the receiver's perception of the sender's feeling. From this information, Mehrabian performed a linear regression to assess the extent to which each component contributed to the receiver's perception of the sender's feeling. That's where the percentages come from.

Mehrabian is very careful in these books not to generalize beyond the specific context of his research: He studied only messages about feelings, specifically inconsistent messages about feelings. Also, he notes that his generalization from liking to general feelings is unverified, and that the specific percentages in the formula are probably not exact. He does seem confident that for mixed messages about feelings, facial messages carry more weight than vocal messages, which in turn carry more weight than verbal messages.

Mehrabian describes his research results briefly on his web site, and offers this admonition:

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.

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