Professor Mehrabian (1939-) believes that there are three core elements in the effective face-to-face communication of emotions or attitudes: nonverbal behaviour (facial expressions, for example), tone of voice, and the literal meaning of the spoken word. These three essential elements, Mehrabian argues, account for how we convey our liking, or disliking, of another person. His particular focus is on the importance of such nonverbal ‘clues’ when they appear to conflict with the words used and/or the tone in which they are spoken. Mehrabian developed his early theories on this subject during the 1960s. Drawing on the findings of two experiments he conducted in 1967, he formulated the 7-38-55% communication rule.
Building upon his early discoveries, Mehrabian has gone on to develop numerous complex theories, ideas and measures over the course of the last 40 years, making a significant contribution to the discipline of psychology. During this period, he has written and researched extensively, continuing his interest in and commitment to the study of nonverbal communication. He has expanded his field of interest from nonverbal communication in relation to the expression of emotions and attitudes, to its application in areas such as human response, temperament and traits, and the impact of the emotional workplace environment on performance, to name but a few. He has applied his findings to fields as diverse as marital relations, drug use, and voter behaviour. Similarly, his research and theories have been adopted and applied by others in a variety of fields including consumer behaviour and marketing.
Life and career
Born in Iran, Mehrabian began his academic studies in the discipline of engineering. Receiving first a Bachelor’s and then a Master’s degree in engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Mehrabian completed his academic achievements with a PhD awarded by Clark University. Following his educational achievements, in 1964 he took up a teaching and research post at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) where he is currently Professor Emeritus of Psychology.
Entering the discipline of psychology from an engineering background would prove to stand Mehrabian in good stead. Schooled in a subject grounded in hard evidence and testable theories, Mehrabian understood the importance of substantiating his theories and experiments with trusted formulae and measures. Consequently, he has spent much of his career developing scales to quantify and describe complex psychological data.
The 7-38-55% communication rule
Mehrabian developed a key interest in the role of nonverbal communication and its impact during face-to-face exchanges in the 1960s where he developed the often used (and misunderstood) 7-38-55% rule. This was the culmination of two pioneering studies conducted in 1967. The first, in which Mehrabian teamed up with fellow researcher Morton Wiener, was entitled Decoding of inconsistent communications. The second study, which built upon the conclusions from the first and which he undertook with Susan R. Ferris, was entitled Inference of attitudes to nonverbal communication in two channels.
What Mehrabian and Wiener sought to investigate was the impact of the spoken word and facial expressions on an individual’s ability to discern liking in another person. In particular, they were keen to discover the impact of inconsistencies between the meaning conveyed by the spoken word and that expressed by nonverbal means. The study focused solely on the conveying of attitudes and emotions. To achieve their objective, the researchers asked a sample of 17 women to listen to an audio recording of female voices repeatedly saying the word ‘maybe’ in different tones of voice. The tones used were meant to communicate either ‘liking’, ‘neutrality’ or ‘disliking’. At the same time, the subjects were shown three black and white photographs of three female faces each attempting to express one of the three emotional states (liking, disliking or neutrality). As a result of this experiment, Mehrabian ascertained that the visual clues (facial expressions) gave a more accurate result than the audio clues by a ratio of 3:2.
Building on the findings of their first study, Mehrabian and his co-researcher Ferris pursued their interest in the expression of liking and disliking by looking at two different modes of communication – tone of voice and the spoken word. They attempted to discover which channel best communicated these emotions and what the implications for nonverbal communication might be.
To test their hypothesis, they gathered a sample of 30 undergraduate students from UCLA and asked them to listen to an audio recording of nine words. Three of the words spoken represented ‘liking’ (positive language); the next third represented ‘neutrality’ (neutral language); and the final third represented ‘disliking’ (negative language). Each word was spoken using a different tone of voice. The sample was divided into three groups. The first were asked to ignore the meaning of the word and focus purely on tone; the second set were asked to ignore the tone and focus solely on the word; and the final group were asked to use both tone and word to discern the emotion the speaker was trying to convey. From their answers, it was concluded that tone of voice is a stronger indicator of emotion than the actual meaning of the word itself. Drawing on the combined findings of the two studies, Mehrabian formulated the 7-38-55% rule with the formula: total liking = 7% verbal liking + 38% vocal liking + 55% facial liking.
Mehrabian believes that the person receiving a communication trusts the element which most accurately reflects the communicator’s true feelings towards them. From the two studies it would appear that more is conveyed by the nonverbal ‘clues’ than by the spoken word.
Criticisms and limitations
It is clear that these studies are limited – as far as both the validity of the findings as well as their practical application is concerned. Indeed, even Mehrabian himself admits that his equation is only applicable in certain contexts, conceding that the findings could only be applied where no additional information was available about the relationship between the communicator and the recipient. Its application is also limited to cases when the communicator is expressing attitudes or emotions, and when body language and tone of voice contradict the meaning of the spoken word. Mehrabian didn’t intend his formula to be applied across all communication. Yet despite his own caveats as to the limitations of his findings, his research has been widely misused and misunderstood.
Additional aspects of the studies are questionable. The fact that his sample consisted solely of female participants begs the question: would an all-male group have responded differently? The subjects were expected to make judgements based upon very little other than an unseen female speaking into a tape recorder. Furthermore the words spoken were limited to just nine different and unconnected words. The language was also very restricted, weighted heavily to either negative or positive. Other types of body language such as posture or gesture were not taken into account or measured in these experiments either. Had this been the case, Mehrabian’s conclusions may or may not have been affected.
So it is difficult to apply the 7-38-55% rule to mass communications when the speaker is attempting to convey a wide spectrum of emotions and attitudes through the use of multiple words and complex language.
It is also worth considering that in today’s world of electronic communication where tone of voice and facial expressions are often lacking, Mehrabian’s theory cannot be applied. If applied to a medium such as email, for example, it would imply that only 7% of any message conveyed will be understood by the recipient – something which we know to be untrue.
However, despite such limitations and the criticisms levelled at Mehrabian, he was instrumental in successfully highlighting the vital role that nonverbal communication plays in the expression of feelings and emotional states. Mehrabian’s theory is helpful for reminding us that where visual clues are lacking, close attention must be paid to the words used and the way they are expressed if we wish to ensure that the correct message is communicated
Models and scales
Mehrabian’s theoretical works extend to a series of psychometric scales used to measure different emotions. In 1974 he co-created the PAD (Pleasure, Arousal, Dominance) Emotional State model with James A. Russell. Its purpose was to measure and describe a series of differing emotional conditions. To achieve this, the PAD model consists of three scales:
- The pleasure-displeasure scale: which measures how pleasant an emotion is.
- The arousal-non arousal scale: which measures intensity of emotion.
- The dominance-submissiveness scale: which measures the dominant nature of an emotion.
As well as being applied within the context of body language and communication, the PAD scale is also effective for measuring differences in the temperaments of individuals. This makes it a useful tool for measuring consumer behaviour and responses to marketing and advertising campaigns, amongst other applications.
Mehrabian’s early theoretical works and experiments aid our understanding of the role nonverbal communication plays in the expression of feelings towards others. Yet the implications of his research extend far beyond this rather limited finding. Indeed, his findings have been used to articulate power, influence and social attractiveness, to name but a few applications. The social impact of his work is evident in ‘The Mehrabian Polling Snowball Effect’ in which he identified ways in which skewed polling data can influence voters.
Similarly, his emotional scales have a widespread application. His measures have been applied in the field of consumer behaviour to assess consumer reactions to products, services and different shopping environments. Equally, the scales are used in areas as diverse as assessing the emotional impact of a workplace environment, the effects of an advertisement on its recipients, or a reaction to a drug.
Additional applications of his research have led to the realisation that the choice of a name, whether that be for a child, a product or a business, influences how that person, product or organisation is perceived by others and the impression they gain of them. It isn’t difficult to see how valuable this research is, especially in the world of commerce where first impressions are crucial in attracting and retaining customers.
Mehrabian’s work has also focused on stress in the context of the working environment. His research has led to conclusions about the impact of emotional climate on employee morale and productivity. Indeed, his interest in human response and the importance of temperament, personality traits and emotional environments is in evidence throughout his studies with conclusions that can be applied in many different contexts. His work on personal characteristics and traits has covered top performers such as elite athletes, for example. He has developed numerous psychometric scales which have been used both nationally and internationally to help identify individuals with high levels of success, emotional intelligence and good communication and social interaction skills.
It is evident that Mehrabian’s lifetime work and research has been influential in many different disciplines and has made a significant contribution to the field of psychology. Despite facing criticisms along the way, his theories and models continue to be applied to great effect in many different arenas.
Alongside his ongoing psychology studies, in recent times Mehrabian has developed an interest in alternatives to fossil fuels. Details of his investigations into this topic area are provided on his website. This foray into an alternative discipline underlines the diversity of Mehrabian’s knowledge and passions and the breadth of their application across a wide range of fields and disciplines. His interest and passion for research appear to have waned little over the years, with his ideas developing and evolving as time has passed to lend currency and relevance to his work today.
Key works by Albert Mehrabian
Nonverbal communication. Piscataway, NJ, Aldine Transaction, 1972
Silent messages: implicit communication of emotions and attitudes. 2nd ed. Belmont, Calif., Wadsworth, 1981
(Originally published in 1971)
The Mehrabian myth. Training Journal, November 2008, p.34
Pleasure-arousal-dominance: a general framework for describing and measuring individual differences in temperament. Current Psychology, 14 (4) Winter 1996, pp.261-292
Key works by others
Forrest, C. How to say no. Training Journal, November 2008, pp.32-35
Albert Mehrabian's website