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:
- tone of voice and
- body language.
and secondly, the non-verbal elements are particularly important for communicating feelings and attitude, especially when they are incongruent: if words and body language disagree, one tends to believe the body language.
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 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. (...)
- Mehrabian, A. (1971). Silent messages. Wadsworth, Belmont, California.
- Mehrabian, A. (1981). Silent messages: Implicit communication of emotions and attitudes (2nd ed.). Wadsworth, Belmont, California.
- Mehrabian, A. (1972). Nonverbal communication. Aldine-Atherton, Chicago, Illinois.
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