The Visual Dominates – Mehrabian Revisited

There’s been a lot of unfortunate controversy among communication professionals about Professor Albert Mehrabian’s oft quoted research (below). It’s good to have discussion though, for his research has altered the communicating landscape and has helped to get people out of the ‘curse of knowledge.‘ Here are my thoughts and personal experience on the issue:

Mehrabian wrote the classic “Silent Messages” in 1981 (2nd Ed). From this book came the research that shows vocal and visual outweigh the verbal when you have a conflicted message. The weight is at the feeling level (‘likability’), not at the informational level. His exact numbers were:

  • Verbal 7% (the word, or words, or message)
  • Vocal 38% (the sound of the voice)
  • Visual 55% (what people see)

For extensive background on the research detail and methodology see the links here. Olivia Mitchell did her usual thorough job of research also, although I disagree with her conclusions. And to not make this post too long, let me hit on what I think are the critical points.

1. Mehrabian’s research was only on the inconsistent message! When your message and your tone and your look are one, are congruent – Mehrabian is irrelevant. He was measuring what the listener judged more important in ‘liking’ (and thus trusting, believing, being open to) when there was inconsistency and incongruence between the message and the behavior. This is the critical issue.

2. Many say that Mehrabian’s findings mean content is worth 7% of the message and ‘body language’ is worth 93%. Totally wrong. The research was not at the information level. It was at the feeling level. And it just measured what channel the listener liked (trusted, believed) more than the other. Many bloggers have pointed this out by now – so hopefully at least that misinterpretation should be put to rest.

3. The visual dominates! The most important takeaway is that when there is an inconsistent message, the listener will overwhelmingly judge the visual cues more as to whether they like (trust and believe) the speaker. And realize all this happens at the unconscious level.

Let me amplify:

Dr. Mehrabian Interview
When I interviewed Dr. Mehrabian
at his UCLA offices in Los Angeles in May of 1981 on his findings, I
learned a lot.

Here is one of his quotes from my June, 1981 newsletter (no blogs in those days):

“It’s true we say that non-verbal
is more important than the verbal when it comes to conveying emotions
and attitudes. Now I cannot say to you non-verbally that my check book
is in my desk drawer at home on the left hand side. That’s information.

“So we have to be very careful to make that distinction. But when we
are talking on the emotional level, attempting to be persuasive,
getting across information in an important way, here the non-verbal
elements of our speech become more important in the impact that we
have.”

Which leads into one of my favorite findings:

People buy on emotion and justify with fact

In my book “You’ve Got To Be Believed To Be Heard” I write about the importance of the emotions – the feeling level – in all our communications. It is very powerful, and works at the First Brain (emotional brain, limbic system) level. And as I point out in my book, the eye sensory input is by far the most important nerve pathway to the emotional First Brain (25 times larger than auditory). Not only does the visual dominate, visual cues have a direct pathway to the unconscious brain.

In his book “Blink,” Malcolm Gladwell talks about the adaptive unconscious (First Brain), and how important the enormous visual input is in making immediate and unconscious decisions. (In the first 2 seconds a police officer may have to decide to shoot or not – Gladwell calls it Thin Slicing.) We make those same decisions in communicating – in whether to believe someone or not.

So when you meet someone for the first time, the visual will dominate, and likability will be important to your openness to the person. If you don’t like someone, you will tend to neither trust nor believe what they say. Likability has been proven to be the most significant factor in electing Presidents, or in any voting for that matter. (See also Tim Sanders book, “The Likeability Factor.”) We tend to discount emotionally and unconsciously those we don’t like. Doesn’t matter how important or true the message is, it will tend to not be heard. Thus Mehrabian’s findings are important to point the way to being better communicators.

Overcoming the ‘curse of knowledge.’

In Chip Heath’s great book “Made To Stick” he talks about how we – our society and all of us as communicators – are caught up in the ‘curse of knowledge.’ Starting in our academic system we are taught information reigns supreme – if we say the words people will get them. But it just isn’t so. It takes more than words.

Mehrabian points the way for overcoming the ‘curse of knowledge.’ But there are so many other examples and proof points (I could write a book… well actually, I did.) Suffice to say, when we speak we create a communications experience where people WILL get our message if we are trusted and believed. And enthusiastic and confident. And we connect and engage. If we are congruent with our message. And unfortunately most people communicating in business aren’t congruent – when they are nervous, lack confidence, or otherwise sabotage their message with inappropriate vocal and visual cues. Those cues are what will be believed at the feeling, liking and unconscious level. That is what Mehrabian’s research shows. And if you want a visual and vocal example, look at these clips from people who are at first nervous and then gain confidence.

The ladder is leaning against the wrong wall.

Much of the criticism of Mehrabian in recent blogs comes from his methodology – he was using still pictures, he combined two different experiments, etc. These interpretations miss the point. I think most statistical research can be faulted in some way – and as Mark Twain said, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” But what is the essence of the findings? It is that the visual dominates at the feeling (liking) level, and that is the dominant factor in establishing trust and credibility. Which is critical in getting any message across.

I’ll close this post with my personal experience that I think totally verifies Mehrabian. I founded Decker Communications, Inc. 30 years ago this year. We have trained and interacted with well over 100,000 people in 1 and 2 day “Communicate To Influence” programs. I have personally been involved with tens of thousands of our clients in coaching and training.

To my knowledge, there has not been an exception to:

  • every participant coming in content-burdened and behaviorally-challenged in some way, exhibiting an inconsistent message.
  • every participant gaining confidence and conscious control of behavioral skills – vocal and visual – that allowed them to give a more consistent and powerful message.
  • …and finally, there has not been an exception to any participant who did not agree with the substance of Mehrabian’s findings after learning of the research intellectually, and then spending some time observing themselves on video, with feedback and coaching – and seeing how important a congruent message was.

Professor Albert Mehrabian has provided a great service to communicators who learn of, and apply, his work. Let not misinterpretations of that work diminish the importance of Mehrabian.

14 comments on “The Visual Dominates – Mehrabian Revisited

  1. Pingback: The Five Biggest Mistakes CEOs Make in Speaking | Decker Blog

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  4. Hi Bert,
    Thanks for this post. I have read both this post and Olivia Mitchell’s. It’s good to see an honest discussion about how to interpret research data.
    In fact the dialogue prompted an idea for my blog as well.

  5. I’ve always believed so much in being emotionally compelling. I know I can connect much better that way. It really builds up my confidence.
    However, I have worked in fields like science and engineering where use of anything emotional is a no-no. Some are so adamant about this they say that using anything besides the facts to make a point means “you’re technically incompetent.”
    (I once went to a sales meeting where the presenter got chewed out that way.)
    Others have even said, “I became an engineer because I have no social skills.” I saw this at a conference on user interfaces, where the presenter explained why some computers are so unfriendly. His point was computers are designed by engineers for engineers, not mere mortals.
    So when I’m putting together a speech for a technical audience, I find I really have to subtract parts of that nonverbal in order to be believed. Of course, I’m secretly laughing when some of these same stoneface engineers get very giddy detailing every single feature on their latest iPhone, digital camera or other gadget. Still, I wish that certain audiences could lighten up a little.
    Meanwhile, I’m tempted to hit a biotech chemist over the head with a 7/38/55 formula to see if we connect.

  6. Mike and Jonathan,
    Appreciate your comments – and appreciate you taking the time to amplify the message of this post.
    Thanks,
    Bert

  7. Olivia, I am glad that you agree that emotional impact is important and that the way a speaker comes across has impact. It is the ‘amount’ of impact that we disagree on – I think it is profound.
    You emphasize content – and it is of course the message we want to get across when speaking. Yet most people block believability in their content by their behavior. 30 years experience says so!
    Best,
    Bert

  8. “When your message and your tone and your look are one, are congruent – Mehrabian is irrelevant.”
    Fantastic point. I truly believe that this is the point that many people are missing. Make sure that your preparation is thorough enough to ensure that those three elements are aligned. Winging it because you believe you’ll have a great tone and body language isn’t enough.

  9. As a long time Decker student, admirer and associate since ’89, I’ve learned many best practices that have helped me in my ongoing quest to become a better communicator.
    Clearly the insights gained from Mehrabian have been the single most valuable “best practice’ that has stayed with me through every customer facing encounter, from phone calls, large group presentations to hosting and moderating webinars.
    I always think, am what I saying consistent with how I feel, and to that point, it helps keep me grounded to make sure I project the most authentic and credible message.

  10. Hi Bert
    I’ve written a post on my own blog to respond to your view’s on the interpretation of Mehrabian’s research. The link is http://www.speakingaboutpresenting.com/presentation-myths/misinterpretation-mehrabians-research/.
    But here’s the crux of it for me. I don’t agree that Mehrabian’s research was about the listener’s feeling about the speaker. In my view, it was about the speaker’s feeling about the listener. I explain my reasons for this in detail in my post.
    However, I do agree that emotional impact is important and that the way a speaker comes across can increase or reduce that emotional impact.
    With much respect and friendship, Olivia

  11. Thank you for the great post, I had no idea of the misrepresentation of data or the history of Mehrabian.

  12. Great post, Bert. I’d like to think we’re making a dent in the mass of Mehrabian misinterpretations. Maybe we’re just preaching to the choir. Thanks for adding another dimension to the discussion!

  13. As always, this is excellent! Hopefully, we can put an end to the “confusion” surrounding Dr. Mehrabian’s research. I bet this post gets linked-to a lot in the future.