16 August 2010

Fact & fiction about body language 1: Folded arms, defensiveness and the Mehrabian myth

I was interviewed recently for a BBC Radio 4 'Word of Mouth' programme on body language that's scheduled to be broadcast tomorrow. As the interview lasted for twice as long as the whole programme, it's inevitable that whatever I said will be heavily edited.

This, coupled with the fact that the main guest being advertised in the BBC's advance publicity is a body language expert, means that there's a fair chance that my position on the subject may not get as full a hearing as I'd like.

So, to put the record straight, I've decided to post a series of extracts from Chapter 11 ('Body Language: Fact and Fiction') of my book
Lend Me Your Ears: All You Need to Know about Public Speaking and Presentation.

A number of topics that are often grouped together under headings like ‘body language’ and ‘non-verbal communication’ have already been discussed in earlier chapters: the role of eye contact in holding the attention of audiences (Chapter 1), and the importance of intonation, stress and pausing (Chapter 2). But there are various other claims about non-verbal communication that are heard so often that it is important to consider just how seriously they should be taken

1. Comfort, cold or confrontation?

Looking out on the audience in a crowded lecture theatre, I often notice that some people are sitting with their arms folded. If I believed all the modern myths about body language I would start worrying about what I’d said or done to prompt such a mass display of defensiveness. This is because it is widely claimed in the folklore of management training that people with their arms folded are on the defensive.

Luckily, I have two good reasons for not becoming too paranoid when I see people with folded arms sitting in an audience. One is that I have, on many occasions, taken the trouble to ask them if they are on the defensive. Usually, they say that they are feeling comfortable. Occasionally, they complain about the lack of armrests on the chairs, or about the inadequacies of the heating system. But never once has anyone ever said that they are feeling defensive.

A second reason for not worrying about it is that there are invariably several people sitting with their arms folded. This is exactly what one would expect from observing how people behave in groups. It is a manifestation of what researchers have dubbed ‘postural echo’, which refers to our tendency to copy or reflect, albeit subconsciously, similar postures to those around us. The fact that there are a number of people with folded arms is therefore more likely to mean that they are responding to each other than mounting a collective display of defensiveness against me.

If, on the other hand, we fold our arms when confronted with an awkward question or some other kind of threat, it may well then be a sign of going on the defensive. This gives us a fourth possible meaning to add to comfort, missing armrests and feeling cold. So, just like words in a language, elements of body language can have different meanings in different contexts.

The trouble is that many trainers seem all too ready to accept and propagate a more rigid doctrine, in which things like folded arms are assigned a single, unambiguous and unvarying meaning in all situations. Indeed, so widely entrenched has this particular view become, that I now recommend people not to fold their arms when speaking, whether in a presentation, job interview or anywhere else where they are keen to make a good impression. This is not because I believe that folded arms are a sign of defensiveness, but because I know that there’s a high probability that there will be someone in the audience who believes that it is.

2. Non-verbal Sense and Nonsense

The overstated claims about the meaning of folded arms are part of a much more general trend that has gathered pace over the past two or three decades. This is the rise of various modern myths about the overwhelming importance of body language and other non-verbal factors in human communication. It is a view that has been fuelled by a mass of books aimed at distilling the findings from research by social psychologists and others for the benefit of a mass readership. Some have become best sellers, and much of their appeal no doubt lies in the fact that, although people are vaguely aware of body language, there is an air of mystery about what it is, how it works and what it conveys. Such books therefore hold out the hope that, if only we knew how to crack the code, our social lives would be transformed for the better.

The trouble is that the process of popularisation almost inevitably results in research findings being diluted and simplified to such an extent that, by the time they reach a wider audience, they are presented as being far more definite and unambiguous than the original researchers ever intended. What started out as preliminary observations or hypotheses become hard facts, and few of the original author’s words of caution about the methodological limitations of a particular experiment ever find their way into the popularised versions. One of the most spectacular examples of this is the claim that the words we use are by far the least important part of the communication process.

3. Is 93% of communication non-verbal?

Type ‘non-verbal communication’, or something similar, into almost any search engine, and up will come a reference to a widely repeated claim about the relative importance of verbal and non-verbal factors in communication. The following version (from HERE) is typical:

“Studies show that during interpersonal communication

· 7% of the message is verbally communicated

· while 93% is non-verbally transmitted.

“Of the 93% non-verbal communication:

· 38% is through vocal tones

· 55% is through facial expressions.”

Like almost all the other citations of these statistics, whether on web sites or in books and courses on presentation skills, mention of ‘studies’ is not accompanied by any reference to what the original research actually consisted of, let alone who did it or when it was done. Nor, on the several occasions when I have asked lecturers or trainers who have presented it unquestioningly as ‘fact’, has any of them ever been able to cite the source, or to provide any further details about the original study.

None of this would matter were it not for the fact that the claim flies so flagrantly in the face of our common-sense experience. If true, for example, it would mean that anyone who is unable to see a speaker’s facial expressions, whether because they are blind, in the dark, listening to a radio or talking to someone on the telephone, would only be able to understand 45% of what was said to them. It would have made more sense for Shakespeare to have had Mark Anthony say, “Lend me your eyes”, and for the same correction to be made to the title of this book.

Most absurd of all is the fact that, if only 7% is verbally communicated, there would be no need for anyone ever to learn foreign languages, as we would already be able to understand 93% of any particular one of them without any formal instruction at all.

Perhaps the most disturbing feature of claims like this is that they help to spread and consolidate the myth that non-verbal behaviour is so overwhelmingly dominant that the words we use to convey our messages are of little or no importance. This is not only grossly misleading, but also increases the normal anxieties of speech-making with a catalogue of extra things to worry about, like stance, gesture, movement and even what colour clothes to wear.

In some cases, there is a huge gulf between the originators of the research and their disciples, both in the amount of confidence shown in such ‘facts,’ and in the extent to which they hold them to be generally applicable. This is certainly true of the 93% claim, which first reached a wider public with the publication of the book Silent messages: Implicit communication of emotions and attitudes by Dr Albert Mehrabian, a social psychologist at the University of California, in 1981. But, as he pointed out to me in an e-mail, the research on which it was based dates from more than a decade before that, and was actually concerned with feelings and attitudes:

“This work of mine has received considerable attention in the literature. It was reported originally by Mehrabian & Weiner (1967) and Mehrabian & Ferris (1967). Silent Messages contains a detailed discussion of my findings on inconsistent and consistent messages of feelings and attitudes.

Total Liking = 7% Verbal Liking + 38% Vocal Liking + 55% Facial Liking.”

(Albert Mehrabian , personal communication, e-mail, 16 October 2002).

A key point to note here is that Dr Mehrabian’s original percentages refer to different types of ‘liking’, and not to communication in all its forms. And, as one of the originators of these numbers, he writes with far more caution about their general applicability than is ever shown by the popularisers of his work:

“Please note that this and other equations regarding differential 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.” (Albert Mehrabian, personal communication, e-mail, 16 October 2002).

Unlike Dr Mehrabian, those who recycle these percentages with such confidence have few qualms about generalising way beyond anything he ever intended. Their cavalier disregard for the details of his research is also a matter of some concern to him, as he indicated in the reply to an e-mail in which I asked him what he thought about his findings being so widely used to mislead people about the relative importance of verbal and non-verbal communication:

“I am obviously uncomfortable about misquotes of my work. From the very beginning, I have tried to give people the correct limitations of my findings. Unfortunately, the field of self-styled ‘corporate image consultants’ or ‘leadership consultants’ has numerous practitioners with very little psychological expertise.” (Albert Mehrabian , personal communication, e-mail, 31 October 2002).

If this biggest of all claims about the dominance of the non-verbal over the verbal has been so exaggerated and distorted in its translation from the original to the training rooms of the world, the question arises as to the reliability of other ‘facts’ that make up the received wisdom about body language and non-verbal communication.


  1. Does it matter what you wear and are lecterns barriers to communication?
  2. Do movement and gestures distract?
A recent post - Another example where 100% of the communication is 'non verbal' - includes links to other related discussions of the subject on this blog.

Over the past few years, I've been delighted to see that the view expressed here seems to be gaining wider acceptance. See, for example, the animated critique by Creativity Works, 'Busting the Mehrabian Myth' and Olivia Mitchell's blog posts HERE and HERE.


Andrew Scott said...

As one of the trainers who inhabit that murky world you speak of, I too have come across this astonishing example of the authority of Verbal Tradition.

Trainer repeats unto trainer 7%, 38%, 55% as some holy mantra, and each is proud to learn the exact figures to give some credence to the ludicrous proposition.

But try challenging it, and you get a very hostile response, as though you are some ignoramus, unaware of the impact of shaking your head while saying 'Yes.'

What is demonstrably true, is that a striking mismatch of verbal and non-verbal communications is distracting and confusing. Congruence is valuable - but if I didn't believe words alone can convey meaning, I wouldn't be writing this.

BTW Max, do you remember meeting me many years ago in a bar at Middle Aston House? You flogged me a copy of Our Masters' Voices, which I've enjoyed enormously (and of course misrepresented and over-simplified in quoting to others , in true trainer fashion...)

Faisal ... said...

Max, your post about non-verbal communication is straight to the point. The company I worked for forced me to participate in soft skills training and I have heard these quotes numerous times. It's quite annoying because, as you have stated in your post, what's the point of language. At that time I hypothesised that maybe we are not good listeners. From reading your post, I would say maybe the non-verbal parts are means for us to keep the audience focussed. I emphasise on the maybe here because I do not have any scientific backings on my theory and therefore do not take it as fact. Of course, a typical dishonest trainer will probably start to quote my theories as scientifically proven - I will not be flattered because I am a scientist myself.

M. Smith Roche said...

You are brilliant. This whole study of body language has been hijacked and turned into a voodoo science. It is always a relief to read your spot on comments. I value your accuracy. If the 93% model was correct we could watch the TV without sound. It has taken on an urban myth along with we only use 10% of our brains.

Anonymous said...

My Viewpoint. Silence can be viewed from so many angles due to so many different thought processes. This article doesn't mean that silence is not respected, innate or sought after but it sure can send a wave of unnecessary anxieties when words are not spoken. Considerations beyond ourselves are quite difficult to overcome- as words can easily be expressed for some and much more difficult for others. Considerations for the other person, whatever flip side that person maybe on, has to be taken into consideration. This. This is what I find fascinating, challenging and also a lil disheartening. Ie. To ignore someone is also a form of silence to protect oneself or to face the challenge to branch beyond a personal comfort zone. Another question arises, if there was always direct communication, always an honest answer, would there be this much hurt, anxiety and/or confusion ? Couldn't direct communication be viewed from so many angles due to so many different thought processes?

Max Atkinson said...

I first saw these comments on 4th July 2014, so this is a very belated thank you to everyone for joining in the debate. Keep it up and spread the word!!!

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