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Carol Craig is the Centre's Chief Executive. She is author of The Scots' Crisis of Confidence, Creating Confidence: A Handbook for Professionals Working with Young People, The Tears that Made the Clyde: Well-being in Glasgow and The Great Takeover: How materialism, the media and markets now dominate our lives. She is Commissioning editor for the Postcards from Scotland series. Carol blogs on confidence, well-being, inequality, every day life and some of the great challenges of our time. The views she expresses are her own unless she specifically states that they reflect the Centre's thinking.

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Posted 26/01/2011

When I was on the internet the other day I stumbled upon something of interest.  Many years ago I was an assertiveness trainer amongst other things. At that time the supporting literature, and many other personal development books, were always trotting out research on body language carried out by Professor Albert Mehrabian, a US based psychologist.  Apparently this research showed that in communicating a message there were three important dimensions: the actual words used (verbal); the tone of voice (vocal); and body language (visual).  Mehrabian is continually quoted as reporting that his research shows that in terms of the impact of a message the weighting is 7 per cent verbal, 38 per cent vocal and 55 per cent visual.  In other words, a person's body language matters much more than the actual words he/she uses.  

However, shortly after becoming a trainer I started to question this as it made no sense to me. Effectively this research was being used to say that words didn't matter and this is nonsense. Just think how often you have felt wounded, inspired, confused, informed or whatever by words. So on courses if I referred to Mehrabian I started to say that his research was only applicable when there was a lack of congruity between what a person was actually saying and their tone of voice and their body language. Indeed I would go on and speculate that with successful communication it is difficult to separate the verbal, vocal and visual as they work in harmony and appear authentic.

In fact I came across the original Mehrabian research the other day on the internet and discovered that the versions of it which are commonly cited in the communications industry are even wider of the mark than I actually thought.  Mehrabian's research hardly looked at what we would call body language. Indeed many of his research projects only studied words and tone of voice. When a visual component was added it was simply photographs of a few different facial expressions. What's more, the experiments often involved the subjects saying one word -  'maybe' – so it was a far cry from real life communication.  Interestingly those involved in the communication and those judging what was going on were all female. The other notable aspect of the research is that the participants were asked to judge the feelings of the speaker – not how they themselves felt about the speaker.

On his website Mehrabian states:

"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."

However, other researchers even question these conclusions pointing out that the methodology of Mehrabian's research is deeply flawed as it is so out of sync with normal communication. More recent research in more naturalistic settings has not confirmed Mehrabian's findings on the saliency of facial expressions, for example.

If I had been undertaking training related to this area nowadays I'm sure I would have checked up on this research since I always felt there was something inaccurate about it. However, fifteen years ago this was a daunting task. The original research was published in academic journals which were not that accessible to people, like me, who were not working in an academic institution. What's more, before the internet it was simply much more difficult to get access to information.

As the whole idea that words matter so little in day to day conversation is quite frankly implausible it is worth asking why this idea gained such currency. In part this was because it was presented as 'academic research' – science no less with figures and equations.  As always there were commercial interests at stake as well. Indeed almost like a game of Chinese whispers Mehrabian's small time research project was soon understood and sold as the rationale for a great deal of presentation skills training and image-building.

Of course, body language and tone of voice add to communication but there is no formula here that we can apply as this will depend on the specific people, context and content of the communication. How did we ever think it could be reduced to simple percentages?

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