Mehrabian’s Rule: Is 93% of communication really nonverbal?

Mehrabian-RuleBoth in business and in private life we have all regularly heard or ourselves made the claim that 93% of communication is non-verbal (facial expressions, body language and voice tonality), while only 7% of communication is verbal.

I used to then wonder why those who offered courses in communication would make the same claim, and then do the exact opposite. I’d see them spend 93% of the time on the verbal aspects like the spoken and written word, and 7% on the nonverbal parts.

There is a widely-held belief that spoken communication is mostly nonverbal, based on a distortion of Professor Albert Mehrabian’s (in)famous statistic, which in its original form states that:

* Total Liking = 7% verbal liking + 38% vocal liking + 55% facial liking

which was taken out of context and misunderstood to mean

* 55% of the meaning of communication is body language, 38% is in tonality, and 7% rests in the words themselves.

One has to ask though, what did he mean by “liking“?

It must be said that Professor Mehrabian’s research says nothing at all about these relative contributions in general speech. Not a word. And his research never set out to prove that communication is primarily nonverbal.

Professor Mehrabian’s research limited itself to situations where what someone says – e.g. “I like this” – is undermined by the way they say it, and the look on their face as they speak. He concluded that in situations like this when tone of voice and facial expression are inconsistent with what is being said, we tend believe what we see rather than what we hear. No surprise there.

So the formula attempts to quantify what happens when words are ambiguous, or when there is an incongruity between the words a person uses and the nonverbals. When there is ambiguity or conflict between these two channels people tend to rely more on the nonverbals to evaluate the emotional state of the person speaking and the value of the words.

However, since Mehrabian’s original search came into the public arena in the late sixties, it has been simplified and distorted beyond recognition. It really took hold when people began writing, saying, and teaching, that in spoken communication 93% of meaning is conveyed through body language – leaving only 7% of the meaning to the words.

In one example, when interviewer Tim Harford asked him directly if 93 percent of communication is nonverbal Professor Mehrabian replied, “Whenever I hear that misquote or misrepresentation of my findings, I cringe.”

As he further quotes, “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 and dislike). Unless a communicator is talking about their feelings or attitudes, these equations are not applicable.”

To illustrate:

Stop for a moment, and think of a situation in which you’ve had a disagreement with a someone but they insist they’re not annoyed with you despite the fact that their body language is closed, their face is turned away, they avoid eye contact and they deliver their words with a tense, flat tonality.

Or, remember a situation where you tell a friend a joke and they respond with a stony face but tell you they think your joke is really funny. You may recall that you are more influenced by the impassive, awkward look than the encouraging words.

As a result of his experiments, he concluded that when we’re faced with a mixed message like the ones above, we’re much more likely to believe that the real meaning is contained in the nonverbal signals the person is giving off, rather than in the words they’re saying. His famous statistic is his attempt to express this kind of experience in the form of an equation.

But – and this is the crucial point – we must not lose sight of the fact that Mehrabian’s statistic only makes sense when applied to the very narrow range of communication and experience that he was investigating, i.e. the ambiguous expression of feelings and attitudes.

To apply it to all face-to-face communication is, in his own words, not applicable.

Albert Mehrabian (born 1939, currently Professor Emeritus of Psychology, UCLA), has become known best by his publications on the relative importance of verbal and nonverbal messages. His findings on inconsistent messages of feelings and attitudes have been quoted throughout human communication seminars worldwide, and have also become known as the 7%-38%-55% Rule.