Body Language Myth: The 7% – 38% – 55% Rule.

When we communicate we use words, tone of voice and body language to get our message across and no doubt you have read about the 7:38:55 % Rule. ‘Popular sources’ state that these figures relate to the relative importance of the components of any message we communicate and receive:

  • 7% relates to the importance of the words we use
  • 38% refers to tone of voice and inflection
  • 55% refers to the importance of body language/face.

That’s amazing. Except that it’s not true. This is not what the original research by Albert Mehrabian concluded.

Body Language Myth: The 55% 38% 7% Rule

The often quoted figure that words only account for 7% of the message is a distortion! – Gary Wood

It doesn’t relate to any type of communication. It is context specific. These figures mainly relate to a situation where we are forming an attitude (like or dislike) of someone. So the words could still be the most important part of the message. The body language and tone of voice are what we  mainly use to assess whether we like the person delivering the message.

The other situation where non-verbal communication seems to have priority is where there is a conflict between the words and non-verbal stuff. If communication lacks congruence, we are more like to disbelief the words. None of this is the same as saying ‘in any communication’.

Often, in research, the context is everything!

If you found this body language post interesting:

About the author

Book Cover: Unlock Your Confidence by Dr Gary WoodGary Wood is the author of Unlock Your Confidence which aims to help people to develop their inherent abilities and relax about communication rather than obsessing over abstract techniques. The book covers the basics of body language and other practical tips for forming positive first impressions His previous book Don’t Wait For Your Ship to Come In. . . Swim Out to Meet It has been translated into several languages including French (Changez Votre Vie)

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12 thoughts on “Body Language Myth: The 7% – 38% – 55% Rule.

  1. Ah, but doesn’t liking the person have an influence (anything from 1% to say 50%) on whether we’re likely to be believe or accept what they say?

    • Yes, liking someone does have an impact, so yes there is a connection. However, we don’t have to like someone to believe them. Think teachers. It’s possible to intensely dislike a teacher and yet still accept the information they give (I’m not speaking from personal experience here of course).

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  6. I keep hearing about “what’s not true”.

    And even the lame multi-language conjecture about “if true, you should understand someone speaking chinese, for example.). Okay, so that is rhetorically fun.

    So let’s stay in language.

    What are the right numbers if 55 38 7 are not correct?

    Now that would be insightful.

    • The 55 38 7 figures only hold for making first impressions on new information, under lab conditions (with male participants). The research was never meant to be extended to the communication of any and every message in any or every situation. That’s what is often argued. We can agree that when forming a first impression we rely more on non-verbal cues. When verbal cues and non-verbal cues are incongruent, we tend to give more weight to the non-verbals. But the notion that we can put exact figures on it is simply not possible outside of the laboratory. There are just too many variables to control for. It’s appropriate to use the right type of analysis for the right phenomena. In this case, a qualitative analysis rather than a reductive quantitative one is more appropriate. When forming first impressions do we really try to ‘put a number on it’?

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  8. Regardless of the numbers, isn’t it true that tone of voice and body language have substantial impact on communication?

    • Yes I agree. It’s often said that I wouldn’t be able to speak if I had to keep my hands in my pockets! It’s just that the mis-reporting of the original research misleads some people into thinking that words don’t matter. The research also suggests that we don’t need body language training to know when someone is lying. We get a ‘gut-feeling’. Thanks for taking the time to comment.

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