The 7% error

February 27, 2012

in Communication

Looking at statement with a magnifying glass  © Costasz | Dreamstime.com

Have you heard that when we communicate things like body language and tone of voice are more important than the words we use? The claim is words are only 7% of the whole. I’ve heard this at more than one marriage conference, and read it in several marriage books and blogs. There’s just one problem, the statement is DEAD WRONG for all but one very narrow circumstance.

The original research, which has been taken out of context to get the 7% claim, was done by Albert Mehrabian. In his tests Mehrabian looked at how accurately people guessed the feeling behind words, images, or tone of voice. Subjects did better at guessing the emotions shown in a photo than in hearing a word spoken to portray the emotion. As Mehrabain has said, “Please note that this and other equations regarding relative importance of verbal and nonverbal messages were derived from experiments dealing with communications of feelings and attitudes (i.e., like-dislike). Unless a communicator is talking about their feelings or attitudes, these equations are not applicable.” (link)

I bring this up primarily because I am just tired of hearing the error repeated. Any advice or points based on this bogus 7% claim are questionable, and if you are thinking of changing how you communicate because of these claims I’d suggest you think again.

This is not to say body language and tone are unimportant! If your tone and body language conflict with the words you are saying, you will be perceived as dishonest. The wrong tone can kill a compliment, and the right tone can soften criticism. However, tone and body image only colour our words, they do not exceed the power of words.

By the way: This little rant is not a result of anything I have seen or heard recently. I tossed the idea into my draft folder a while back, and it jumped out at me tonight when I was looking for something to write about. I do not mean to put down anyone who has shared this information inaccurately. This is one of those errors repeated so many times we all assume it must be fact. It’s just I am the kind of person who seeks to confirms things – even things everyone knows are right.

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4 comments
UK Fred
UK Fred

I always thought that 8 out of every 5 statistics were made up anyway.

J (Hot, Holy & Humorous)
J (Hot, Holy & Humorous)

Thank you for clarifying this. I for one get annoyed when I see a bogus statistic thrown around over and over, with no one checking the original study from which it came. I've probably been guilty of this myself, but I'm happy when someone corrects the fallacy. Thanks, Paul.

Ol' Will
Ol' Will

Thank you, Paul. As an example, this makes me think of the way TV comedies use tone and body language to get a laugh. The Man-character's words might say that he is demanding something from the Lady-character while his tone and body language tell us all that he's really begging. The contradiction is what makes us laugh. However, the lead-up to the joke depends upon straight dialog - not on tone and body language - to set up the situation. Thanks again for eradicating another urban legend that puts men into relational straight jackets.

Jennifer Still
Jennifer Still

Amen! I agree! I know men who have heard this or similar things and have been afraid to then talk to their wives. Men are already afraid to talk to their wives. They dont want to get it wrong. The very design of a woman screams "talk to me and let me talk to you". Words are huge. You are right about the tone thing for sure. But we need words. God gave us an amazing gift in communicating beyond what animals are capable of. We can share the very depths of ourselves and what we feel or see and share ourselves with the world. Marriage is the perfect place for such expression to take place.

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