Monday, February 27, 2006

Sarcasm discovered in 1967

A few years ago I started my first corporate job. I learned a lot of new things in switching from academia. For example, it was the first time I came into contact with corporate trainers. One of the training sessions I was in was something like “communication skills”. After filling out our Myers-Briggs horoscopes and being successfully pigeonholed, we moved on to the following exciting factoid:

“Did you know that 55% of communication is body language, 38% tone of voice and only 7% the content of the words you use?”

This communication myth is pervasive in corporate circles and on the web. I was surprised to find out that these numbers were not just made up on the spot, like 83% of all statistics. Instead, they come from two articles in psychology journals:

Mehrabian, A., & Ferris, S.R. (1967). Inference of attitudes from nonverbal communication in two channels. Journal of Consulting Psychology, 31, 248-252.

Mehrabian, A., & Wiener, M. (1967). Decoding of inconsistent communications. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 6, 109-114.

So could this be true? Not quite.

Mehrabian & Weiner 1967
The goal of the study was to measure the subject’s perception of the attitude of a speaker towards her listener. They recruited two female speakers and recorded them each speaking 9 words under 3 different intonational conditions:

  • Liking, high evaluation, or preference

  • A neutral attitude, neither liking nor disliking

  • An attitude of disliking, low evaluation, or lack of preference

The 9 words were brute, dear, don’t, honey, maybe, oh, really, terrible, and thanks. The researchers divided them into three classes, those that have a positive affect, neutral affect, and negative affect.

Positive: dear, honey, thanks
Neutral: maybe, really, oh
Negative: brute, don’t, terrible

The speakers were directed to “say the words, irrespective of contents, in such a way as to convey an attitude of respectively, towards the target person” (Mehrabian & Weiner 1967).

Subjects were asked to rate what they thought the attitude of the speaker toward her listener was using a 7-point scale ranging from -3 (most negative) to +3 (most positive). One group of subjects was directed to only pay attention to the content of the words. A second group was directed to only pay attention to how the words said (the tone). And a third group was directed to pay attention to all the available information.

Not surprisingly, in the “content only” condition, people rated the speaker’s attitude according to the affect of the word. So a negative affect word like don’t was significantly more likely to be perceived as showing a negative attitude. In the “tone only” condition there was also a significant effect of tone. However, in the “use all information” condition people tended to ignore the content of the word and judge the speaker by how they said it. So a positive word like honey would be perceived as giving a negative attitude if spoken in a negative tone.

Mehrabian & Ferris 1967
This was a similar study that was intended to measure the interaction of facial expressions and tone on perception of speaker attitude. The single “neutral” word maybe was used. Three speakers said the word with three different intended attitudes towards the listener. The researchers also took photos of the three speakers as they tried to show like, dislike or neutrality. The subjects then listened to the different examples of maybe crossed with the pictures. The subjects were asked to rate the attitude of the speaker towards the listener on the same 7 point scale as in the Mehrabian & Weiner study.

Again, not surprisingly, the analysis showed significant effects of both the facial expression and tone. Mehrabian and Ferris did a regression analysis to determine the relative contributions of these two components to the total measured attitude. Here’s the formula they came up with:

AT = 1.50AF + 1.03AV

In there discussion of the results they propose to combine them with the results in the Mehrabian & Weiner study. This is when they come up with the 7%, 38%, 5% stuff:

It is suggested that the combined effect of simultaneous verbal, vocal, and facial attitude communications is a weighted sum of their independent effects—with the coeeficients of .07, .38, and .55 respectively (page 252

Clearly the two limited studies do not give us anything like the broad claim I heard form the corporate trainer. At best, they show that when it comes to how you are going to be perceived by someone, your tone of voice and facial expressions are important—that is, they discovered sarcasm.

To be fair, Mehrabian acknowledges the limitations on these results. See his web page:

Inconsistent communications -- the relative
importance of verbal and nonverbal messages. My findings on this topic have
received considerable attention in the literature and in the popular media.
"Silent Messages" contains a detailed discussion of my findings on inconsistent
messages of feelings and attitudes (and the relative importance of words vs.
nonverbal cues) on pages 75 to 80.

Liking = 7% Verbal Liking + 38% Vocal Liking + 55% Facial Liking

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.


parsnipgirl said...

Wow. It is amazing how misused the findings of that experiment are! Your post reminds me of Geoff Pullum's investigation into the source of the "Eskimos have xx words for snow." Maybe your post is destined to become a classic....

AJ said...

Hi Ed, I finally created an ID here to be able to participate/comment on some level.

Working here at ‘the Q’ I have to agree with your observation of corporate trainers and the Myers-Briggs voodoo they embrace so whole heartedly. You must be 91% right on the mark here.

I personally believe most of the training is to enable the worst weasels (the ones who the corporate world rely on so much to really get things done) to climb the ladder faster, and as long as they drop a choice HR buzzword here and there they can excuse their behavior.

Example: I had one particular trainer here, and I would see her in the halls on occasion and I’d try to say ‘hi’ as we passed. After a few failed “hellos’ fell dead on the floor I figured she just wasn’t a people person after all or I had mysteriously become invisible in her presence. I mentioned this in passing to a supervisor as an amusing anecdote. A few weeks later he tells me he had seen the trainer, relayed my experiences to her and her reply was that I ‘must have had my victim glasses on.’ Too funny - needless to say I still make an effort to go out of my way to say 'hi'.

liberal elite said...

Hey Anthony! Glad to see you contribute.

How dare you speak to a trainer!

AJ said...

I know... I looked her in the eye too! I 'm lokin' at some SDA.

Anonymous said...

>>In there discussion of the results
You probably mean to say "in their discussion". Or maybe it's "In there, discussion ..." :-)

liberal elite said...

OMG Anonymous, you are SOOOO right. I can't believe I made that mistake. I feel like such an IDIOT. THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU for pointing that out to me. I am tearing my hair out. God, I better go check the rest of my blog to be sure that I didn't do it again. That would be so embarrassing. Can you imagine?

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