The Mehrabian formula for communications
Professor Albert Mehrabian has pioneered the understanding of communications since the 1960s. He received his PhD from Clark University and in l964 commenced an extended career of teaching and research at the University of California, Los Angeles. He currently devotes his time to research, writing, and consulting as Professor Emeritus of Psychology, UCLA. Mehrabian’s work featured strongly (mid-late 1900s) in establishing early understanding of body language and non-verbal communications.
Mehrabian’s research provided the basis for the widely quoted and often much over-simplified statistic for the effectiveness of spoken communications:
- 7% of meaning in the words that are spoken
- 38% of meaning is paralinguistic (the way that the words are said)
- 55% of meaning is in facial expression
Here is a more precise (and necessarily detailed) representation of Mehrabian’s findings; the formula applies to communications of feelings and attitudes:
- 7% of message pertaining to feelings and attitudes is in the words that are spoken
- 38% of message pertaining to feelings and attitudes is paralinguistic (the way that the words are said)
- 55% of message pertaining to feelings and attitudes is in facial expression
The ‘Mehrabian formula’ (7%/38%/55%) was established in situations where there was incongruence between words and expression.
Mehrabian did not intend the statistic to be used or applied freely to all communications and meaning, however this is what has happened!
The Mehrabian model is particularly useful in illustrating the importance of factors other than words alone when trying to convey meaning (as the speaker) or interpret meaning (as the listener), but care needs to be taken in considering the context of the communication: Style, expression, tone, facial expression and body language in Mehrabian’s experiments did indeed account for 93% of the meaning inferred by the people in the study, but this is not a general rule that you can transfer to any given communications situation.
For more information about Professor Albert Mehrabian and his work: www.kaaj.com/psych
Crowe Associates 2013 adapted from www.businessballs.com