Marketing people love simple facts. “This new app saves 90% of your time”, “Make your business 80% more efficient while spending half as much”, or “Did you know? Only 7% of information is transferred in words, the remaining 93% are about nonverbal communication”.
The last sentence represents a widespread Mehrabian’s rule of personal communication. According to it, when people transmit information words account only for 7%, tone of voice — for 38%, and body language — for 55%. The rule has become so popularized, it is now included in trainings for personal growth and marketing messages.
However convenient this myth may seem, there are two fundamental problems:
- It expands a very specific initial application of the formula to a much wider range of applications
- The fame around it is has penetrated supposedly exact high-tech industries such as Affective Computing or Digital Psychology
In this article we want to answer these two questions:
- What role do nonverbal cues play in human communication?
- How to avoid oversimplification and why choose ethical marketing?
The story behind the 7–38–55 rule
First, the historical background. The roots of this formulae date back to the late 1970s. The 7–38–55 rule appeared as a result of two studies carried out by Albert Mehrabian in 1967 (mainly Mehrabian & Ferris, 1967; and Mehrabian & Wiener, 1967).
In the study aimed at decoding of inconsistent communications, Mehrabian studied double-bind theory of schizophrenia and supposed that a too apparent and frequent disagreement between verbal and nonverbal channels indicates schizophrenic tendencies in people. The subjects had to do two simple tasks:
- To read and relate the words from the proposed list to one of the three categories — positive, negative, or neutral — while imagining that each of these words could be said by person X to person Y.
- To listen to the same words and do the same task — determine whether X’s attitude towards Y is positive, negative, or neutral.
Interestingly, when the meaning of the word contradicted the attitude communicated by a negative tone, the total message was judged as communicating a negative attitude. That is — the nonverbal auditory component prevailed over the verbal one.
The second study «Inference of attitudes from nonverbal communication in two channels» went further and aimed to find how much weight each of the channels — the meaning of the words (verbal), voice (nonverbal), and face (nonverbal) — received in human communication. Positive, negative, and neutral attitudes were again communicated in each of the channels, by words, vocal intonations and photographs of facial expressions.
Based on the results, Mehrabian concluded that in their judgements subjects in general paid one and a half times more attention to facial expressions than to vocal intonations. He then assumed that in the study people communicated 55% of the information by body language, 38% by tone, 7% by words, and highlighted that more generalized conclusions should be further discussed.
However, this formula is erroneously applied to human behavior as a whole. Any study will naturally use a very precise experimental setting not to jump to quick conclusions. Mehrabian’s studies have serious limitations, and basically any other similar research on human communication and emotional expression does too. These 3 are the most important ones:
- Laboratory vs. Real life
Mehrabian’s studies were conducted in laboratory conditions and instead of a real communicative situationon between people separate stimuli were used: voice, photos and words. In a series of studies scientists compared how people communicate in natural conditions versus in laboratory and found significant differences in their behavior. For example, when subjects were watching a video of a person addressing a message to them they tended to behave as if they were watching a movie rather than being in a situation of communication. Real-life communication captures more attention, motivation and interest (Reader & Holmes, 2016). Thus, the conclusions about the 55–38–7 ratio should not be directly applied to real life. Also, the verbal component was represented by individual words, while in real life we rarely use only one word to express ourselves.
Сontext, in which the words are used, plays crucial role in emotion recognition. Context can be represented by physical conditions in which the interaction takes place, the meaning of the situation, and personal characteristics. Presumably, when one channel is not available, say you cannot see the face of the person talking to you, you will make judgments about that person’s emotions based only on the available information, for instance, the voice. The context also affects the perception of ambiguous emotions (Aviezer, Bentin, Dudarev, & Hassin, 2011; Van den Stock, Righart, & de Gelder, 2007).
2. Problem setting
The subjects in Mehrabian’s studies had to evaluate the liking of one person to another. It is a specific task for which the results were obtained. Thus, for a different problem the results could be different.
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.
Albert Mehrabian on his website.
The “body language” in these studies refers only to the emotional facial expressions on static photographs. Despite the fact that photographs are used in research to this day (Konstantinova et al., 2018), Mehrabian’s results should be transferred to a natural person-to-person communication with great accuracy. In real-life interaction the dynamics of facial expressions play an important role (Iwasaki & Noguchi, 2016), and the interlocutor’s gaze direction has a modulating effect on the perception of her facial expression (Adams & Kleck, 2005).
For more criticism have a look at this article. Here is also a nice explanatory video: Busting the Mehrabian Myth by http://www.creativityworks.net
Current view: What role do nonverbal signals play in human communication?
According to the current views, the amount of information we communicate nonverbally varies greatly. For sure nonverbal signals play a huge role in human communication. This becomes especially obvious when gestures, facial expressions, voice intonations contradict our words. It is not only about what we say, but how we say it.
Here is what science has to say. First, the use of ‘power poses’ during a job interview increases the chances of being hired. (Cuddy et al., 2015) Second, jokes and irony are often made by exaggerating the difference between the verbal and nonverbal channels. (Jacob et al., 2016) Third, in 2017 a group of researchers processed videos with politicians speaking in public. They translated the body movements into stick-figure animations and separated the visual from the audio channel. Then they asked people to match audio tracks with the stick-figure animations. The participants made correct decisions in 65% of all cases. (Siegle & Koppensteiner, 2017)
These are 3 examples showing that nonverbal behavior is at least as important as verbal. We may not know the exact ratio or the rule. But we can guess that to help machines better understand human behavior, we should teach them to understand not only what we say but how we say it.
How to avoid oversimplifications and why choose ethical marketing?
Finally, Google search using the key words “communication 93 percent nonverbal” results in 493,000 links. Back in 2007 there were 263,000 results, and when researchers analysed the first 100 links, out of 79 websites that included a reference to communication being 93% nonverbal, only 16 identified Mehrabian as the source for these numbers (Lapakko, 2007). Today the situation is better — you occasionally meet the word “myth” in the headings.
Still, this is not a phrase you would like to hear from a journalist or a marketologist in 2018. Think about any other similar facts you have occasionally come across (and mention in the comments section below if any come to your mind). Building your marketing message on such myths is not only wrong, but dangerous. Here are several things one needs to avoid oversimplification and stick to when delivering messages:
- Connect your PR/marketing team to R&D and technical specialists.
- Make sure the fact you want to mention is indeed relevant to your message.
- Check your sources.
- Keep in mind that everything you announce publicly can (and will) be criticised, sooner or later.
Authors: Maria Konstantinova, Research Scientist, Neurodata Lab; Kristina Astakhova, Evangelist, Neurodata Lab.
You are welcome to comment this article on our blog on Medium.
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