In the communications and presentations industry there are generally just two research studies that are quoted when talking about the importance of nonverbal communication. They were carried out by Albert Mehrabian and his colleagues in 1967. Forty-two years ago.
In the second of those studies, Mehrabian proposed the 7-38-55% formula. He suggested that the perception of a speaker’s feelings was based 7% on the word used, 38% on the tone of voice and 55% on the facial expression. In two previous posts, I showed how this has often been misinterpreted to apply to the meaning that is derived from a communication, or to the feelings that are engendered in the listener. (The studies are in fact restricted to the judgement of the speaker’s feelings).
Based on the fact that these are just about the only studies on nonverbal communication ever quoted by communications consultants, you would think that these were the only pieces of research ever done on nonverbal communication. Not so. In a 1985 literature review I found 33 other studies specifically on the relative importance of nonverbal communication (Noller, 1985).
In this post, I look at the other research on nonverbal communication. There is a rich and complex literature on the issue.
Many factors affect the importance of nonverbal communication
The issue is far more complicated than Mehrabian’s figures lead us to believe. Research carried out after Mehrabian’s 1967 studies has shown that:
- The channel carrying the negative connotation is the one likely to be used in deciding whether the message is positive or negative. (Bugental, 1970, 1972, 1974)
- The more verbal material there is, the more important the verbal channel. (Cline, 1972)
- When observers were asked to make a cognitive judgement about the speaker (as opposed to a judgement about how the speaker feels) the verbal channel was more important. (Freidman, 1978)
- When observers were asked to judge whether a speaker was being honest or deceptive, the verbal channel was most important. (Kraut, 1978; Krauss, 1981)
- The sex of the speaker, and the sex of the observer affect the importance of the channel. (Argyle, 1970; De Paulo, 1979, Noller 1980)
Little support for the findings of Mehrabian’s research
In addition many later papers specifically state that they found no support for the claim that nonverbal communication is dominant. Here’s just one quote:
“Claims from the previous literature about the primacy of the visual over the verbal channel and the particular importance of the face as compared to body or speech [Mehrabian (1967) is cited here along with others] were not supported.” O’Sullivan, Ekman, Friesen and Scherer (1980)
Even when it came to the judgement of the speaker’s emotions, researchers concluded:
“Nothing we have found would lead us to conclude that nonverbal information, whether it be transmitted via the vocal or the visible channel, is in any sense the primary basis for the perception of another’s affect [emotions]. ” Krauss, Apple, Morency, Wenzel and Winton (1981)
In any field of scientific research, you’re likely to find some variability in results, dependent of many factors including the design of the experiment. It’s tempting to look at just the research that supports your point of view, and ignore the rest. It’s so common that it has a name: cherry picking. My conclusion is that in the presentations industry, we’ve been guilty of just that.
This is my third post in my series on Mehrabian’s research. If you haven’t already checked them out, see: