What Percent Of Communication Is Nonverbal? A Discussion Of The Albert Mehrabian Myth
Christopher Philip

Albert Mehrabian

Albert Mehrabian born 1939, Iran. Currently Professor Emeritus of Psychology, UCLA.
He is a pioneer in human communication and nonverbal messaging, tone of voice, body language and widely misinterpreted on the “7%-38%-55% rule.”

Time is likely better spend by ponder, not what percentage of communication is nonverbal, but rather, is the nonverbal-factor-of-communication enough to warrant it’s study?

By being on this website, you already know exactly how I feel about the matter.

However, let’s take the time to set things straight. Albert Mehrabian’s “7%-38%-55% rule” is a construct of being correct through nothing more than repetition, a bit of broken phone, and a high degree of oversimplification. The widely repeated rule of communication wasn’t born out of faulty research, rather it was a creation of faulty interpretation. You can’t even begin to blame Mehrabian himself, as the statistic had a ready audience prepared to lap up the findings – and it still does!

Here is how the statistic is normally presented:

– 7% of a message relates to the feelings and attitudes of the words being spoken.
– 38% of a message relates to the feelings and attitudes from the way words are said.
– 55% of a message relates to facial expression.

At the time of the research, nonverbal communication was in its infancy, with little empirical data, so when a study came out pointing to a ‘secrete language’; people were all too prepared to pick up whatever crumbs trailed behind the research.

Heck, even today, nonverbal communication isn’t a complete science – though great strides are made almost daily. As a matter of fact, we find it highly difficult to keep up with all the new research. This is such a promising field – I expect that many University courses will be developed in the future to help teach students about nonverbal behaviour and nonverbal communication, but I digress!

The actual Mehrabian statistic is a combination of two studies (referenced below).

In the first study, Mehrabian had a confederate read words to an audience of students. He read words such as “love”, “dear”, “thanks”, and “honey” (three positive words and three negative words made up the set) but when the words were read the tone was varied (neutral, positive and negative). He then asked the students their opinion about how they knew what the speaker meant. In other words, the study asked the students for their opinion about which cues offered them meaning behind the words.

The results showed that the students rated other factors, besides the actual words, to be most relevant.

The seconds study consistent of showing a black and white photograph of a face which was either, neutral, positive, or negative, coupled with a voice tone played over a tape recorder. Again, he found similar results, the face matter more. In fact, the nonverbal channel held at a ratio of 3:2.

Now this is where the “rule” comes from as Mehrabian combined the statistics from the two experiments together resulting in visual cues being used 55% of the time, tone of voice 38% of the time and – the amount remaining, 7% was due to the actual words being said. Now if you subtract the resulting statistic of 7% from 100% you get that famous 93% which was meant to represent the amount of communication being nonverbal! Almost like magic!

The flaw in the statistic is obvious. It has nothing at all to do with how nonverbal communication or nonverbal behaviour actually works! Nothing. The actual research was designed to assess the attitudes and feelings about words and not the assessment of how people communicate in a real world setting with body language.

Does it mean that nonverbal communication is not 93% of all communication? The answer is a resounding, ‘I don’t know,’ coupled with ‘I don’t care.’

Why don’t I care, well it’s because the precise statistic is not important to a real world application. What I do know is that nonverbal communication is some (likely) important fraction of all communication and that by understanding body language, I can understand people much better than I could otherwise.

In other words, by studying nonverbal communication, one is able to make accurate predictions about other people.

I personally couldn’t even conceive of a study that could properly assess the level of communication that happens nonverbally. I can tell you though, that from having been around the topic for so long, that I personally collect a lot of information from nonverbal channels.

Exactly how much?

Buckets full.

Resources

Mehrabian, Albert ; Wiener, Morton Katz, Daniel (editor). Decoding of Inconsistent Communications. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 1967. 6(1): 109-114.

Mehrabian, Albert and Ferris, Susan R. Inference of Attitudes from Nonverbal Communication in Two Channels. Journal of Consulting Psychology. 1967. 31 (3): 248–252.

Mehrabian, Albert. 1971. Silent Messages (1st ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth. ISBN 0-534-00910-7.

Mehrabian provides this explanation from his own website [retrieved]:
“…Inconsistent communications – the relative importance of verbal and nonverbal messages: My findings on this topic have received considerable attention in the literature and in the popular media. ‘Silent Messages’ contains a detailed discussion of my findings on inconsistent messages of feelings and attitudes (and the relative importance of words vs. nonverbal cues) on pages 75 to 80.

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. Also see references 286 and 305 in Silent Messages – these are the original sources of my findings…”

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