36th Annual Convention 
March 2015
Virginia Beach, VA

Albert Mehrabian on the "93% of communication is nonverbal" myth

March 28, 2013 4:44 PM | Anonymous


  • April 03, 2013 2:01 AM | Margarete Imhof
    thanks for the link! Great material.
    Link  •  Reply
  • April 06, 2013 10:58 AM | Richard D. Halley
    Graham, thanks for this. I hope this helps a lot of people stop misquoting this material. It is beyond me how anyone who thinks for even a brief moment could think that "93% of communication is nonverbal." I am also amazed at the number of times I have explained this issue with similar examples to the one given here and still have those same people say this stupid sentence again at a later time. Very strange.
    Link  •  Reply
  • April 23, 2013 11:14 PM | Michael Purdy
    Totally agree on Nonverbal thing. One has to go back and check the original study. Like the one that we only comprehend 25% of what we hear (or the 100th money effect). These simple assertions are too glib, and once challenged don't stand up to any serious evaluation; and yet they get repeated and repeated until they seem like fact.
    Link  •  Reply
    • May 07, 2013 9:42 PM | Anonymous
      The equation was actually derived from two studies. Here is a summary:

      In the first study, researchers (Mehrabian & Wiener, 1967) generated a list of several words that clearly communicated a feeling by themselves and had trained female actors record these words attempting to communicate liking (positive emotion), express a neutral tone, and communicate negative feeling. So, for instance, “honey” was read in a positive tone of voice, a neutral tone of voice, and a negative tone of voice. Undergraduate students were then asked to listen to these words and “imagine each one … [is] being said by one person, the speaker, to another and you are to judge what the speaker’s attitude is toward her addressee” (p. 110). Some participants were told to use only the information contained in the words when making their judgment, some were told to use only the information contained in the tone of voice, and some were told to use all information. After hearing each word, participants indicated on a scale ranging from -3 to +3 “the degree of the speaker’s positive versus negative attitude towards the addressee” (p. 111). By positive attitude the researchers meant “liking, preferring or having high evaluations” and by negative attitude the researchers meant “disliking, not preferring to or having low evaluations of the addressee” (p. 111).

      Importantly, participants told to only pay attention to word content reported positive attitudes for positive words and negative attitudes for negative words. Similarly, participants told only to pay attention to tone of voice reported positive attitudes for positive tones and negative attitudes for negative tones. Thus, it appears that when asked, people have a good idea of which words and which tones, in isolation, seem to convey positive and negative emotion (see section on the Social Meaning Model). What has received the most press, however, is the results relevant to participants told to attend to both the words and tone of voice. Mehrabian suggested that in this condition, there were some combinations that presented listeners with a contradiction between the word and tone of voice. So, for instance, when “brute” was read in a positive tone, the word was negative while the tone was positive. In these “contradictory” conditions, results showed that the vocal elements explained 5.4 more times the variance in participant ratings than did the words; in other words, tone of voice was much more important in the explanation of participant evaluations compared to the actual word content. As summarized by the authors, “the tonal component makes a disproportionately greater contribution to the interpretation of the total message than does the content component” (p. 113).

      The second study (Mehrabian & Ferris, 1967) used the neutral word “maybe” which was read in a positive, neutral, and negative tone. Along with the audio presentation of the word, participants were asked to view a photograph of a female actor who “attempted to use facial expressions to communicate like, neutrality, and dislike towards another person” (p. 250). Participants were asked to judge the attitude conveyed by the combination of the vocal tone and facial expression, and results were summarized by the authors as follows: “Attitudes inferred from two-channel facial-vocal attitude communications are a linear function of the attitude communicated in each component, with the facial component receiving approximately 3/2 the weight received by the vocal component” (p. 251). In other words, information conveyed from the face was 1.5 times more important to ratings provided by participants compared to that conveyed from the voice.

      Combining these two studies, Mehrabian devised the following equation representing the relative importance of the three components he studied to judgments of liking:

      Total Liking = 7% Verbal Liking + 38% Vocal Liking + 55% Facial Liking

      You will notice that nowhere in this equation do you find the phrase “all communication” or the term “meaning.” Indeed, the work Mehrabian conducted was not only limited to the communication of feelings and attitudes, but it also had several limitations that suggest we not even put much stock into the equation for the purpose of deriving importance for liking! First, his research used single words as the representation of content. In our daily lives we hardly (if ever) speak in single words, and even when we do those words are bounded by things before and yet to come that, like the ghosts in the Charles Dickens novella, provide us with information that assist in our interpretations of the present. Second, the judgments were made by a third-party observer asked to assess the putative liking of one person for another. As Mehrabian and Wiener note, “These findings … can be safely extended only to communication situations in which no additional information about the communicator-addressee relationship is available” (p. 113). When we attempt to express to our friends and romantic partners how we feel, we often do so using contradictory vocal-verbal information, and these individuals interpret our talk not because the meaning of messages is inherently captured better by nonverbal components of speech but because they know how we typically talk and they have a valid relational context upon which they can draw to infer how we feel.
      Link  •  Reply
      • July 09, 2013 10:52 AM | Peter deLisser
        Until solid research can give us a better way to interpret, this one works for me.
        Watching TV ads confirms.Ads jump from picture to picture knowing movement{new pictures) keeps our attention more than logical words. As long as there is a new picture, people may not CHANGE the station
        Link  •  Reply
Dr. Nanette Johnson-Curiskis
 Executive Director, International Listening Association 
Box 164, Belle Plaine MN 56011 USA
Phone and TEXT: 1.952.594.5697 
.pdf files downloaded from this site require Adobe Reader
Powered by Wild Apricot Membership Software