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Mehrabian's communication study

 

Explanations > Behaviors > Understanding body language > Mehrabian's communication study

 

There is an oft-quoted (and often mis-quoted) study by Albert Mehrabian on how people decide whether they like one another.

The studies

Mehrabian and his colleagues were seeking to understand the relative impact of facial expressions and spoken words.

Study 1

In Mehrabian and Wiener, (1967), subjects listened to nine recorded words, three conveying liking (honey, dear and thanks), three conveying neutrality (maybe, really and oh) and three conveying disliking (don’t, brute and terrible).

The words were spoken with different tonalities and subjects were asked to guess the emotions behind the words as spoken. The experiment finding was that tone carried more meaning than the individual words themselves.

Study 2

In Mehrabian and Ferris (1967), subjects were asked to listen to a recording of a female saying the single word 'maybe' in three tones of voice to convey liking, neutrality and disliking.

The subjects were then shown photos of female faces with the same three emotions and were asked to guess the emotions in the recorded voices, the photos and both in combination.

The photos got more accurate responses than the voice, by a ratio of 3:2.

They cautiously note:

These findings regarding the relative contribution of the tonal component of a verbal message can be safely extended only to communication situations in which no additional information about the communicator-addressee relationship is available.

The misunderstanding

Mehrabian and Ferris (1967) provides the original source of the 7%-38%-55% misquote:

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 has also concluded on his website the following formula:

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

He also notes:

Unless a communicator is talking about their feelings or attitudes, these equations are not applicable.

This finding tends to be incorrectly generalized to mean that in all communications:

  • 7% happens in spoken words.
  • 38% happens through voice tone.
  • 55% happens via general body language.

Of course this cannot be true: does an email only convey 7%? Can you watch a person speaking in a foreign language and understand 93%?

The implications

Whilst the exact numbers may be challenged, the important points can easily be lost in the debate about how valid or not the study was.

Useful extensions to this understanding are:

  • It's not just words: a lot is communication comes through non-verbal communication.
  • Without seeing and hearing non-verbals, it is easier to misunderstand the words.
  • When we are unsure about what the words mean, we pay more attention to the non-verbals.

We will also pay more attention to the non-verbal indicators when we trust the person less and suspect deception, as it is generally understood that voice tone and body language are harder to control than words. This also leads to more attention to non-verbal signals when determining whether the other person may be lying.

So what?

Beware of words-only communications like email. It is very easy to misunderstand what is said, even if emoticons (smileys) are used.

When you feel that a person is not telling the truth, check out the alignment between words, voice and body.

If you want the other person to pay more attention to your body language, be less clear with your words. If you want them to trust the words, be clear and unambiguous.

See also

Using Body Language

 

Mehrabian's site is at: http://www.kaaj.com/psych/

 

Mehrabian, A. and Wiener, M. (1967). Decoding of inconsistent communications, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 6, 109-114

Mehrabian, A., and Ferris, S.R. (1967), Inference of Attitudes from Nonverbal Communication in Two Channels, Journal of Consulting Psychology, 31, 3, 48-258

Mehrabian, A. (1971). Silent messages, Wadsworth, California: Belmont

Mehrabian, A. (1972). Nonverbal communication. Aldine-Atherton, Illinois: Chicago

 

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