The Body Language Myth

Is 93% of all communication really nonverbal?

Posted Mar 08, 2020

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Source: cc0-icon CC0 Public Domain

It’s often said that more than 93% of all communication is nonverbal. Given the effort we put into choosing our words (i.e., our verbal communication), can this statistic really be accurate? 

Let’s start by reviewing the history of this widely quoted finding. Though few know it’s origin, it comes from a study conducted by Mehrabian and Wiener in 1967. In their experiment, researchers read participants a list of words (like “dear,” “honey,” “really,” “brute,” and “scram”) in a neutral, negative, or positive tone and showed photos of a variety of matching or incongruent facial expressions.

Judging by the sound of the words and emotions depicted in the photos, they asked participants to identify the intention behind the words. They found that only 7% of the judgement was based on the actual words, 38% was based on tone, and 55% was based on facial expressions (i.e., a total 93% nonverbal judgement). Given the methodology of this study, it is no wonder that participants largely disregarded the words (since they knew they were scripted) and, instead, paid close attention to paralinguistic cues. 

Does this mean nonverbal communication doesn’t carry as much weight as many of us thought? The answer depends on whether we perceive people’s words to match their intentions.

As study co-author Albert Mehrabian later wrote, "When there are inconsistencies between attitudes communicated verbally and posturally, the postural component should dominate in determining the total attitude that is inferred." In other words, when someone’s words seem to match their nonverbal signals, we’ll likely fully pay attention to the words. It’s only then we suspect that someone’s words don’t match their nonverbal signals that we “listen” to nonverbal communication. 

So what can you do to be a better communicator and avoid misunderstandings? Create congruence between your verbal and nonverbal messages. If you are feeling sad, be sure your facial expressions match. If you are happy, show it with your vocal tone and body language. The more consistency you create, the more trust you’ll build and the more your carefully-chosen words will matter.

This post summarizes key research and tips from the “Professor X skillz” episode of our podcast, Talk Psych to Me.

References

Mehrabian, A., & Wiener, M. (1967). Decoding of inconsistent communications. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 6(1), 109–114. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0024532