Study of nonverbal communication

Blue WallThe idea the vast majority of communication occurs nonverbally is quoted everywhere from advertising to popular psychology articles. In fact the original experiments from which these findings derive only applied to communicating attitudes and feelings. That hasn’t stopped them being applied universally. Even just considering attitudes and feelings though, these studies have been questioned.

53% face, 38% voice, 7% words?

Some of the most influential studies to claim high importance for the nonverbal component of communication were carried out by Albert Mehrabian (Mehrabian, 1972). In one study participants had to judge the positive, negative or neutral content of various words. Three were chosen to be positive – ‘dear’, ‘thanks’ and ‘honey’ – three neutral – ‘oh’, ‘maybe’ and ‘really’ – and three negative – ‘brute’, ‘don’t’ and ‘terrible’. Each was then read in either a positive, neutral or negative tone of voice.

In a second study participants had to judge if the word ‘maybe’ was positive, negative or neutral from looking at a photograph of a person with a positive, negative or neutral face. From these, and similar experiments, Mehrabian claimed the face conveyed 55% of the information, the voice 38% and the words just 7%.

The criticism of these experiments is pretty obvious. Although they are interesting, they don’t provide an effective analogue for real social situations. This is what psychologists call a lack of ecological validity. It’s not often we use just one word on its own (unless you count swearing).

12.5 times more powerful? A social psychologist, Michael Argyle, tried to address the problems with Mehrabian’s work. In his studies whole passages of text were acted out in positive, negative and neutral tones. The actual methodology was more complicated than Mehrabian’s work but also led to the conclusion that nonverbal channels are 12.5 times more powerful in communicating interpersonal attitudes and feelings than the verbal channel.

The same criticism comes to mind again. Why should the reading of a paragraph be considered an analogue for spontaneous forms of speech?

Demand characteristics

Perhaps an even stronger criticism of these studies relates to their ‘demand characteristics’. Demand characteristics is a term psychologists use when they are referring to participants in an experiment acting in ways they think the experimenter wants them to act. People generally want to please, they want to go with the flow. So if they can work out what the experimenter is after, they’ll often try and give it to them.

So, when watching videos in these experiments it will be obvious to participants the speeches are acted, not spontaneous. Participants pick up on what the experimenter wants from the social cues provided. Indeed, one study has found that when the purpose of the experiment is actually well-camouflaged from the participants, the dominance of nonverbal communication disappears (Trimboli & Walker, 1987).


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