Mehrabian Misrepresented

Updated: Jan 26, 2019


When I was a freshman in college, I remember reading in my introductory communication textbook that 93% of all meaning is communicated nonverbally. Then, during lecture, my professor suggested we question the generalizability of the study referenced by the textbook author. I was amazed. How could we question methodology of a peer-reviewed article that was cited by the author of our textbook?


That was over 20 years ago and now that I teach communication for a living, I continue to see the argument that 7% of communication comes from words, 38% from tone of voice, and 55% from body language. This 7%-38%-55% Rule is a misrepresentation of Albert Mehrabian’s work.



Mehrabian's Findings Have Been Taken Out Of Context

Mehrabian and his colleagues conducted sound experiments that contributed to our thinking about nonverbal communication in important ways, but the findings of two studies have been taken out of context and should not be applied to all communication situations. Since it appears that most people misinterpreting his work have not read the original research, I've included a few important points below.


The experiment was conducted in a lab with 62 female subjects. Those of us who teach presentation skills should use caution when attempting to apply the results in workplace contexts.

“The purpose of this study is to find out how well people can judge the feelings of others. You will be shown photographs of different facial expressions and at the same time you will hear a recording of the word "maybe" spoken in different tones of voice. You are to imagine that the person you see and hear (A) is looking at and talking to another person (B). For each presentation, indicate on the scale what you think A's attitude is towards B.”

The subjects evaluated the perceived feelings of the speaker about a listener. This was not a study about how a message recipient interprets meaning from a message sender.


This study used one word. In short, participants heard a female voice speak the word “maybe” while looking at a 3 x 4 inch black and white headshot and then indicated whether they thought the speaker liked, disliked, or felt neutral about an imagined third party.


The speakers were in instructed to vary their tone of voice as to communicate like, neutrality, and dislike and the female models displayed facial expressions to communicate like, neutrality, and dislike towards another person. Because the study used static images to assess facial expressions and the photographs where headshots, conclusions can fairly speak to static facial expressions, but not body language. Now, let’s take a look at the line in the article that has been widely misinterpreted:

“It is suggested that the combined effect of simultaneous verbal, vocal, and facial attitude communications is a weighted sum of their independent effects—with the coefficients of .07, .38, and .55, respectively.”

Mehrabian combined the results of this study with a study he and Wiener published the same year that focused on tone of voice. This statement is included in the discussion section of the paper and includes no details about how the results of the two studies were combined. The safest conclusion we can draw is that when an observer evaluates the perceived feelings of a speaker toward a listener, the observer weighs words at 7%, vocal at 38%, and facial attitude at 55%.


For example, if I’m watching someone speak to another person, this research might suggest I would rely more on non-verbal information to determine the speaker’s attitude toward the listener.


Mehrabian Warns About Limitations Of His Findings

Mehrabian’s own website includes the following point: “Total Liking = 7% Verbal Liking + 38% Vocal Liking + 55% Facial Liking. 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, Mehrabian wrote, “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.”


Subsequent studies analyzing the role of nonverbal communication have yield various, and sometimes conflicting, results. Trying to quantify the respective weight of words, voice, and body language have in any one communication situation, to me, seems like a fruitless effort. I’m not interested in answering that question and the people I coach don’t really find any mathematical breakdown that helpful to their situation.


Misinterpretations Don't Help Those We Teach

Too much emphasis on weighting these variables in workplace presentation contexts creates at least two issues. First, those with communication apprehension tend to become hyper-sensitive to how they deliver the message and lose sight of the importance of genuinely and authentically connecting with their audience. Second, and conversely, overly confident presenters tend to rely too much on their delivery skills and tend to undervalue the importance of their message and rehearsal.


What do we know? These studies contributed to our understanding of nonverbal communication. I can write with confidence:

  • Your choice of words matter.

  • Your tone of voice matters.

  • Your facial expressions (and body language) matter.

You should aim to make your words, tone of voice, and body language match and understand that when they don’t match, your audience may be more likely to believe what they see than what they hear.

Sources


1 Mehrabian, A., & Ferris, S. R. (1967). Inference of attitudes from nonverbal communication in two channels. Journal of consulting psychology, 31(3), 248.

2 Mehrabian, A., & Wiener, M. (1967). Decoding of inconsistent communications. Journal of personality and social psychology, 6(1), 109.

3 Atkinson, J. M. (2005). Lend me your ears: All you need to know about making speeches and presentations. Oxford University Press on Demand.