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Why Mehrabain’s Research on Nonverbal Communication and the Meaning of the Message is as Quoted is Inaccurate

I believe that understanding and reading body language is a profoundly useful method for us to read the hearts of others. There is a world of meaning in our nonverbal communication from a glance, a gesture, a tone of voice and more. But, I am I would like to debunk the myth that 55% of communication is nonverbal. How many times have you seen the inaccurate statistics about nonverbal communication by Albert Mehrabian saying that the meaning of a message is communicated:

  • 7% by your words
  • 38% by you tone of voice
  • 55%. by your body language

This interpretation of Mehrabian has been debunked many times, but still it persists. Let’s talk what is true about the experiments by Mehrabian. And what his research looked like.

The research subject heard one word said different ways and was able to detect different meanings. Yes, that’s right, the subjects heard only one word and were asked what meaning was communicated!

First, what is true about the meaning being communicated nonverbally? The meaning of the message can be changed by its nonverbal delivery. Take for example how someone says a particular word or words like “love”, “hate” or “my boss” in a sentence. What someone really intends to communicate can vary depending on their tone of voice, how their inflection rises and falls or how they stress certain words. That is their paralanguage changes. Writer Clella Jaffe gives an example "A movie character is accused of shooting a clerk in a convenience store. When the sheriff asks, "Why did you shoot the clerk?" the suspect responds, "I shot the clerk?"(pause)" I shot the clerk?" At the trial, the sheriff testifies that the accused confessed twice, clearly saying "I shot the clerk." The sheriff says the statement as if it were factual, whereas the suspect's rising voice inflection and stressed words indicates that he's asking a question-drastically changing the meaning of the literal words".

Mehrabian’s experiments

The Mehrabian formula comes from two studies in nonverbal communication carried out by Mehrabian and two colleagues in 1967. That’s correct people are quoting research from over 40 years ago. There is no current research that replicated this particular finding. Twenty years later in my Masters and Doctoral Program in nonverbal communication our textbooks still quoted this research and we talked about its inaccurate referencing. We are still quoting it and we are still using it and debating it today.

To summarize, Mehrabian’s studies asked participants to judge the feelings of a speaker by listening to a recording of a single word spoken in different tones of voice.
In the first study, the participants had to rate the feelings of the speaker after listening to each of nine different words. Each word spoken separately rather than in a sentence with context. The words spoken were often inconsistent with the tone of voice used. For example, the word “brute” spoken in a positive tone. Each time they had to make a rating just on the single word they had listened to.

In the second study, only one word was used. It was chosen to be as neutral as possible: the word was “maybe.” They listened to a recording of the word “maybe” said in different tones and at the same time were shown photos of different facial expressions.

It’s from these experiments that Mehrabian suggested – but did not prove – the formula.

The limitations of Mehrabian’s formula

Mehrabian has himself attempted to limit the application of this formula:

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.
So if we limit the formula to the specific conditions of the experiments, it is only applicable if:

  • a speaker is using only one word,
  • their tone of voice is inconsistent with the meaning of the word, and
  • the judgment being made is about the feelings of the speaker.

What do other researchers say?

Mehrabian’s findings were frequently discussed in the psychological literature on nonverbal communication through the 1970s and 1980s. Researchers have made the following critiques of the methodology of his studies:

  1. They only used two or three people to do the speaking for the experiments.
  2. They take no account of the extent to which the speakers could produce the required tone of voice.
  3. They were artificial situations with no context.
  4. The communication model on which they were based, has now been shown to be too simple.
  5. They take no account of the characteristics of the observers making the judgments.
  6. The purpose of the experiments was not hidden from the participants.

For more detail on these critiques go to Mehrabian’s studies in nonverbal communication and once you are there scroll down to the findings.