Busting The Myth 93% of Communication is Nonverbal

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The idea the vast majority of
communication occurs nonverbally is quoted everywhere from advertising to
popular psychology articles. In fact the original experiments from which these
findings derive only applied to communicating attitudes and feelings. That
hasn’t stopped them being applied universally. Even just considering attitudes
and feelings though, these studies have been questioned.
face, 38% voice, 7% words?
Some of the most influential studies
to claim high importance for the nonverbal component of communication were
carried out by Albert Mehrabian (Mehrabian, 1972). In one study participants
had to judge the positive, negative or neutral content of various words. Three
were chosen to be positive – ‘dear’, ‘thanks’ and ‘honey’ – three neutral –
‘oh’, ‘maybe’ and ‘really’ – and three negative – ‘brute’, ‘don’t’ and
‘terrible’. Each was then read in either a positive, neutral or negative tone
of voice.
In a second study participants
had to judge if the word ‘maybe’ was positive, negative or neutral from looking
at a photograph of a person with a positive, negative or neutral face. From
these, and similar experiments, Mehrabian claimed the face conveyed 55% of the
information, the voice 38% and the words just 7%.
The criticism of these
experiments is pretty obvious. Although they are interesting, they don’t
provide an effective analogue for real social situations. This is what
psychologists call a lack of ecological validity. It’s not often we use just
one word on its own (unless you count swearing).
12.5 times more powerful? A
social psychologist, Michael Argyle, tried to address the problems with
Mehrabian’s work. In his studies whole passages of text were acted out in
positive, negative and neutral tones. The actual methodology was more
complicated than Mehrabian’s work but also led to the conclusion that nonverbal
channels are 12.5 times more powerful in communicating interpersonal attitudes
and feelings than the verbal channel.
The same criticism comes to
mind again. Why should the reading of a paragraph be considered an analogue for
spontaneous forms of speech?
Perhaps an even stronger
criticism of these studies relates to their ‘demand characteristics’. Demand characteristics
is a term psychologists use when they are referring to participants in an
experiment acting in ways they think the experimenter wants them to act. People
generally want to please, they want to go with the flow. So if they can work
out what the experimenter is after, they’ll often try and give it to them.
So, when watching videos in
these experiments it will be obvious to participants the speeches are acted,
not spontaneous. Participants pick up on what the experimenter wants from the
social cues provided. Indeed, one study has found that when the purpose of the
experiment is actually well-camouflaged from the participants, the dominance of
nonverbal communication disappears (Trimboli & Walker, 1987).
the author
Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD
is the founder and author of PsyBlog. He holds a doctorate in psychology from
University College London and two other advanced degrees in psychology.

He has been writing about
scientific research on PsyBlog since 2004. He is also the author of the book
“Making Habits, Breaking Habits” (Da Capo, 2003) and several ebooks.

Kayode Ojo
Kayode Emmanuel Ojo is the Co-Founder and Managing Director at SHEFFA Limited. He is presently studying Computer Science at the National Open University, Victoria Island, Lagos.