Mehrabian’s Communications Theory

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. 

Three elements of communication – and the “7%-38%-55% Rule”
In his studies, Mehrabian (1971) comes to two conclusions. Firstly, that there are basically three elements in any face-to-face communication:

  1. words,
  2. tone of voice and
  3. facial expression

and secondly, the non-verbal elements are particularly important for communicating feelings and attitude, especially when they are incongruent: if words disagree with the tone of voice and facial expression, people tend to believe the tonality and facial expression. It is emphatically not the case that non-verbal elements in all senses convey the bulk of the message, though this is how his conclusions are frequently quoted. When delivering a lecture or presentation, for instance, the textual content of the lecture is delivered entirely verbally, but non-verbal cues are very important in conveying the speakers attitude towards their words, notably their belief or conviction.

Attitudes and congruence
According to Mehrabian, these three elements account differently for our liking for the person who puts forward a message concerning their feelings: words account for 7%, tone of voice accounts for 38%, and body language accounts for 55% of the liking. They are often abbreviated as the “3 Vs” for Verbal, Vocal & Visual. For effective and meaningful communication about emotions, these three parts of the message need to support each other – they have to be “congruent”. In case of any “incongruence”, the receiver of the message might be irritated by two messages coming from two different channels, giving cues in two different directions. The following example should help illustrate incongruence in verbal and non-verbal communication. Verbal: “I do not have a problem with you!” Non-Verbal: person avoids eye-contact, looks anxious, has a closed body language, etc. It becomes more likely that the receiver will trust the predominant form of communication, which to Mehrabian’s findings is non-verbal (38 + 55 %), rather than the literal meaning of the words (7 %). It is important to say that in the respective study, Mehrabian conducted experiments dealing with communications of feelings and attitudes (i.e., like-dislike), and that the above, disproportionate influence of tone of voice and body language becomes effective only when the situation is ambiguous. Such ambiguity appears mostly when the words spoken are inconsistent with the tone of voice or body language of the speaker (sender).

Misinterpretation of Mehrabian’s rule
This “7%-38%-55% Rule” has been overly interpreted in such a way, that some people claim that in any communication situation, the meaning of a message was being transported mostly by non-verbal cues, not by the meaning of words. This generalization, from the initially very specific conditions in his experiments, is the basic mistake around “Mehrabian’s rule”, and on his webpage Mehrabian clearly states this: (…) 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. (…)

The “rule” is based on two studies reported in two papers. Both papers dealt with the communication of positive or negative emotions via single spoken words, like “dear” or “terrible”. The first study compared the relative importance of the semantic meaning of the word with the tone of voice, and found that the latter was much more influential. The second study dealt with face expressions (shown in black-and-white photographs) and voice tone (as heard in a tape recording), and found that the relative contributions of the two communication channels had the ration 3 : 2. Mehrabian then combined the results of the two studies to obtain the ratio 7 – 38 – 55. This can be criticized in many ways. First, it is based on the judgment of the meaning of single tape recorded words, i.e. a very artificial context. Second, the figures are obtained by combining results from two different studies which maybe cannot be combined. Third, it relates only to the communication of positive versus negative emotions. Fourth, it relates only to women, as men did not participate in the study. Fifth, other types of nonverbal communication, e.g. body posture, were not included in the studies. Since then, other studies have analysed the relative contribution of verbal and nonverbal signals under more naturalistic situations. Argyle , using video tapes shown to the subjects, analysed the communication of submissive/dominant attitude and found that all types of non-verbal cues combined – especially body posture – had 4.3 times the effect of verbal cues. On the other hand, a study by Hsee et al., dealing with the communication of happy/sad mood, found that hearing words spoken in a “flat” voice was about 4 times more influential than facial expressions seen in a film with no sound. Thus, different studies may reach very different conclusions dependent on the precise set-up.

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