55% 38% 7% – Busting the Mehrabian myth

Patricia De Griese

Yesterday was the first day of the IATEFL BEsig Annual Conference simulcast in Bonn and BEsig opened the event with a session titled “Feedback dos and don’ts – learn to give feedback effectively and receive it gracefully” – always an important skill in business, right?  The speaker, though, had some interesting credentials. The BEsig site informs us that Patricia de Griese is a “Certified Trainer, Certified Systemic Coach, Workshop Designer and Facilitator, NLP Master”. It goes on to say that her work includes brain-friendly workshops and accelerated learning techniques.  I watched about half of the webinar before deciding to log off. I’m afraid I was reminded of ‘communication trainers’ who peddle dodgy tips gleaned from the Internet or self-help books or worse, even dodgier motivational gurus.

I’m not going to launch into an attack on NLP. I reckon Russell Mayne does a superb job in this succinct post .  Instead, I want to focus on a popular myth that de Griese attempted to perpetuate. At one point, she mentioned to her audience that we ought to avoid prefacing feedback with phrases such as “Don’t take this personally” in what might have been a sort of cursory attempt to cover the pragmatic aspect of feedback. Then, in what I think was a transition to talking about the importance of non-verbal elements in feedback, she introduced the dreaded stats:

55% body language 38% tone  7% words

She mentioned the University of Southern California, a study by Albert Mehrabian and a book whose name she didn’t remember. In 1967, Mehrabian did a study which attempted to prove that when people are faced with verbal and non-verbal communication that is inconsistent (a sort of mixed message), they tend to first rely on body language, then on tone and finally on words but only when discussing likes or attitudes. This little video describes how the study has been misquoted by communication professionals:

But, if only this was a case of misunderstanding and misquoting the research. This article is a good exposé of the extent to which Mehrabian’s study has been criticized and discredited. I’m going to highlight some key points and if you are prone to quoting 55%-38%-7% – you should ask yourself what you really know about this study and how it was conducted.

  • There were two experiments and the first was done with three groups of 10 participants, all of whom were Mehrabian’s students.
  • In the first study, participants listened to nine words being spoken in isolation and then rated the speaker’s feelings. The words were often purposefully said in a way that was inconsistent with its meaning.
  • In the second study, participants listened to recordings of a single word while looking at photos of people with different facial expressions.
  • The recordings themselves came from just two or three speakers.

If this wasn’t unscientific enough as is, the participants in the study were aware of its purpose and the words themselves were completely decontextualised and presented in an artificial setting. It’s also interesting to note that Mehrabian made no attempt to study tone and body language together in the same experiment so we don’t really know how he brought them together in his famous, flawed formula. You can read more about what academic researchers have say about Mehrabian’s study here.

If we are to be taken seriously as a profession, we can’t be dishing out popular myths, self-help mumbo jumbo and figures out of discredited studies. If you hear any of your colleagues, peers or fellow ELT professionals bringing up Mehrabian’s myth in webinars, conferences, blog posts or elsewhere – challenge them. Ask them to describe the study and how it came to this conclusion … chances are they won’t be able to. This is a good example of the logical fallacy of appeal to research and alleged experts. Then, direct them to Olivia Mitchell’s article.

If you haven’t watched it yet, I highly recommend taking a dekko at Russell Mayne’s A Guide to Pseudo-science in ELT at IATEFL Harrowgate.

7 Replies to “55% 38% 7% – Busting the Mehrabian myth”

  1. Hello Adi,
    I was at the workshop in Bonn that you mentioned. It was very interesting and entertaining, with lots of new (indeed eye-opening) information. I never realised that ‘if the brain is ‘hurt’ by negative feedback, then the limbic system takes over and you can lose 15 IQ points’. Furthermore, I learnt that ‘the brain tests the environment every 30 seconds, and the limbic system passes this information to the cortex’. And how about: ‘If you say and do things under stress, your brain will delete this information within 24 hours’. Oh, and the reptilian brain also got a mention, with regard to ‘amygdala hijack’ (which sounds a bit scary). We all enjoyed the workshop and at the end we gave Patricia de Griese lots of positive feedback, which she seemed to appreciate.
    Best regards, Tom.


    1. Thanks for sharing that first-hand insight! I must be at an IQ level of zero by now and I do like the sound of amygdala hijack – almost like the title of a Michael Crichton pot-boiler.


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