GENERAL INTEREST Communication is 93% Nonverbal: An Urban Legend Proliferates The Triad of Evil and the Bush Incumbency: Convergence, Competition and Cooperation Recognizing College Students of Today: Generational Shifts Prompt Pedagogical Shifts Scripting Relationships Through Adolescent and Adult Dramas: Perceptions of Completion in Romantic Relationships Rhetorical Strategies of Visual Pleasure in Situation Comedies: ‘Friends’ and Female Body Image TEACHER’S WORKBOOK Developing a Senior Capstone and Portfolio Course Dusting Off the Trophies: Filling in the Gaps in the Forensics Collective Memory Making Historians of Theatre History Students: The First Three Steps TomKat!: Linking Theory and Practice in Communication Studies Courses Through the Introduction and Application of Social Exchange Theory Not Your Average Speech of Self-Introduction: The “Talking Résumé” Alternative Towards Curtailing Speaking Anxiety Via Impromptu Speaking and Oral Interpretations BOOK REVIEWS Generation Me, by J. M. Twenge
Mediamaking: Mass Media in Popular Culture, by L. Grossberg, E. Wartella, D. Whitney, & J. Wise
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I would like to thank my Applied Communication Research Methods students—Laura Anderson, Rachel Anderson, Todd Anderson, Benjamin Chiles, Katherine Drewes, Kimberly Folkerts, Megan Luebke, Sean Volk, and Melissa Westfall—for their help in providing the final proofreading for this issue of the journal. The Journal is available at the CTAM Website: http://www.mnsu.edu/spcomm/ctam/ COMMUNICATION AND THEATER ASSOCIATION
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The Communication and Theater Association of Minnesota Journal is published annually, usually in the summer, by the COMMUNICATION AND THEATER ASSOCIATION OF MINNESOTA. Regular membership in CTAM includes the journal subscription. CTAM membership information may be obtained from any of the officers or by visiting the CTAM website at www.ctam.us/. Single issues of the CTAM Journal may be purchased by contacting the treasurer or editor. Academic institutions or departments may place advertisements in the Journal by contacting the editor.
COMMUNICATION AND THEATER ASSOCIATION
OF MINNESOTA JOURNAL
Volume 34 Summer 2007
TABLE OF CONTENTS GENERAL INTEREST Communication is 93% Nonverbal: An Urban Legend Proliferates
David Lapakko 7
The Triad of Evil and the Bush Incumbency: Convergence, Competition and Cooperation
Meryl J. Irwin Carlson 20
Recognizing College Students of Today: Generational Shifts Prompt Pedagogical Shifts
Kristen Cvancara & Kristen Treinen 38
Scripting Relationships Through Adolescent and Adult Dramas: Perceptions of Completion in Romantic Relationships
Jenna McNallie 47
Rhetorical Strategies of Visual Pleasure in Situation Comedies: ‘Friends’ and Female Body Image
Deanna Sellow & Jonna Reule Ziniel 62
TEACHER’S WORKBOOK Developing a Senior Capstone and Portfolio Course
Nanette Johnson-Curiskis, Daniel Cronn-Mills, & Warren Sandmann 78
Dusting Off the Trophies: Filling in the Gaps in the Forensics Collective Memory
Brian T. Taylor 88
Making Historians of Theatre History Students: The First Three Steps
David Wintersteen 97
TomKat!: Linking Theory and Practice in Communication Studies Courses Through the Introduction and Application of Social Exchange Theory
Rita L. Rahoi-Gilchrest 103
Not Your Average Speech of Self-Introduction: The “Talking Résumé” Alternative
Lauren Mackenzie 109
Towards Curtailing Speaking Anxiety Via Impromptu Speaking and Oral Interpretations
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Communication is 93% Nonverbal: An Urban Legend Proliferates
Department of Communication Studies
Perhaps the best-known numbers within the communication field are those that claim the total meaning of a message is “7 percent verbal, 38 percent vocal, and 55 percent facial.” Despite the fact that this finding is derived from two 1967 studies with serious methodological limitations, these percentages have appeared in a wide variety of communication textbooks. This study takes the investigation a step further, beyond the academic environment, to determine if the 7-38-55 “formula” has now become the equivalent of an “urban legend” about communication in our society-at-large. Overall, this article finds that the formula in question has been widely disseminated across the Internet, and in ways that show little or no understanding of the research that generated these numbers. Given the widespread ignorance reflected in how these numbers are used—and abused—we as communication educators must consider how we should respond and what we can do to correct such misperceptions. But the truth is, we all have those things that we know about ourselves and those things determine the outcomes of our life. And it comes when the pressure is on. You are going for that job interview. And if your personal truth is, I’m not as smart as these people, I’m not as good as these other applicants. This isn’t me. That’s gonna come out because 93 percent of your communications are nonverbal. So your personal truth is going to scream who you really believe you are.
Dr. Phil McGraw on CNN Larry King Live, 5/26/02
In an article published a decade ago (Lapakko, 1997), I examined one of the most widely-cited academic studies in our field: the research on nonverbal messages conducted by Albert Mehrabian and colleagues in 1967 (Mehrabian & Ferris, 1967; Mehrabian & Wiener, 1967). Out of this research came, arguably, the best-known set of numbers within the discipline: the idea that the total meaning in a message is “7 percent verbal, 38 percent vocal, and 55 percent facial.” Indeed, in this 1997 Communication Education article, I tried to identify the many sorts of textbooks that have included the 7-38-55 “formula.” As I demonstrated, these numbers can be found in our textbooks in public speaking, interpersonal communication, small group communication, persuasion, organizational communication, and intercultural communication (Lapakko, 1997).
However, despite the wide dissemination of these numbers, it is clear that this line of research has received considerably more attention—and more credence—than it could possibly warrant. As Burgoon (1985) contends, “A much-repeated estimate in the popular literature is that 93 percent of the meaning in an exchange comes from nonverbal cues, leaving only 7 percent to be carried by the verbal utterance . . . Unfortunately, this estimate is based on faulty analysis . . . .” (p. 346). As I observed (Lapakko, 1997), the subjects in the main study by Mehrabian and Ferris (1967) were limited to 37 female psychology majors, and the language prompt was limited to but one word (the word “maybe”), making the role of language in this laboratory experiment largely irrelevant by design. Further, the numbers themselves are actually derived from two studies; neither study simultaneously compared the verbal, vocal, and facial channels. Also, as Hegstrom (1979) observes, “A formula such as Mehrabian’s gives the impression that more is known about the relative contributions of the various channels of communication than in fact is known. It is misleading to use this kind of information as support for the importance of nonverbal communication ‘in general’ when no external validity has been demonstrated. The repetition of this and other formulas only muddies the theoretical water” (p. 135).
Finally, I cited a personal correspondence with Albert Mehrabian in which he himself believes his research has often been misinterpreted and misrepresented. As he stated, “My findings are often misquoted . .. Clearly, it is absurd to imply or suggest that the verbal portion of all communication constitutes only 7% of the message. Suppose I want to tell you that the eraser you are looking for is in the second right-hand drawer of my desk in my third floor office. How could anyone contend that the verbal part of this message is only 7% of the message?” (Mehrabian, 1995, as cited in Lapakko, 1997, p. 65). Therefore, for all of these reasons, I must take the presumptive stance that the Mehrabian research has been widely misinterpreted, and because of its limitations, any broad-based conclusions about the nature of communication simply cannot be derived from it.
Unfortunately, knowing that the Mehrabian research has serious deficiencies and limitations has not stopped the rest of the world from picking up these wonderfully precise numbers. As I suggested in 1997, the allure of this study is that it reduces the complex world of communication into a tidy and precise formula. At some point in the past, these concerns were essentially “quarantined” within academe—that is, confined to our own textbooks—but the academic world does interface with the larger world. What began as a fraudulent set of numbers in our instructional material has now become the equivalent of an “urban legend” within popular culture. The main goal of this paper—in essence, the research question—is to determine how far and in what ways this urban legend has spread, and to consider what lessons we should take away from this situation.
One might ask why there is even a need to document the wide dissemination of such “misinformation.” As discussed later in more detail, it strikes me as an important issue for several reasons. First, in the most general sense, we need to appreciate how “polluted” our information stream has become with the advent of the Internet in particular. Never in the history of humanity has so much data been disseminated in such volume and detail, with such lightning speed, and at times, with such recklessness; this paper is merely a case study of how that revolution relates to our discipline. Second, we need to consider how the academic world can and should deal with the larger world when it comes to explaining academic research: when misinformation is spread through hundreds or even thousands of websites, what can we possibly do to stem the tide? And third, as communication educators, we have an obligation to be concerned about how our research findings are used in the “real world.” Within the academic community, concerns about how the public interprets our work should not be limited to “life and death” issues such as nuclear technology or global warming or stem cell research. As communication educators, we need to be aware of how our own research is interpreted by the general public and how we can help shape those interpretations. Indeed, if an accurate understanding of communication research is not a concern of ours, it becomes a tacit admission that what we are investigating is largely irrelevant to human life—that what other people think, know, or think they know about communication doesn’t really matter. Not surprisingly, I resist that notion.
To determine in what ways the research by Mehrabian and associates has become part of the larger culture’s understanding of communication, the Google search engine was employed. Specifically, I conducted a Google search using the key words “communication 93 percent nonverbal”; all such data were retrieved on January 5, 2007. These search parameters resulted in more than 263,000 “hits.” I chose to more carefully examine the first 100, performing a content analysis of the various sites using the criteria included below.
Results Relevance of the Sites to This Study Of the 100 sites visited using the search parameters above, seven made no reference to the Mehrabian study or the 7-38-55 numbers, so they were excluded from further analysis. In addition, eight sites essentially appeared twice in the first 100 listed, so these eight “duplicates” were also eliminated from further analysis. Finally, I decided to eliminate six sites that were not readily accessible to public access because they involved some type of subscription or registration requirement. Therefore, a total of 79 relevant sites became the focus of this investigation (See Appendix for a complete list of the sites).
Nature of the Relevant Sites
The remaining 79 sites—those which did make reference to the Mehrabian numbers and were readily accessible to public access—are difficult to neatly categorize. Some were connected to educational institutions—e.g., the MIT Careers Office, Continuing Education at Loyola University, or the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s Advising and Learning Assistance Center. Others were sites created by consultants—e.g., Mary Devlin Associates, Ginny Pulos Communications, Inc., DASH Consulting, and Karl Buhl Consulting. Other sites were affiliated with newspapers—e.g., the Chicago Tribune, the Baltimore Daily Record, or the Pahrump Valley Times. Some sites appeared to be private websites created for unspecified reasons—e.g., the Center for Nonverbal Studies, Roundstone International, and SixWise.com. One is also struck by the vast range and nature of these hits: difficult-to-categorize sites which provide the Mehrabian numbers include websites for the Sweet Adelines International, Lowe’s Commercial Services, Goliath Knowledge on Demand, the ClickZ Network, Designed Thinking Seminars, and 40Plus of Greater Washington.
Orientation of the Sites Of the 79 sites which did include a reference to communication being 93% nonverbal, only four actually took issue with the numbers derived from this research or questioned them in any way. For example, one source (Chapman, 2007) states that Mehrabian’s research “is arguably on occasions applied in an overly simplistic or indiscriminate manner . . . . Style, expression, tone, facial expression, and body language in Mehrabian’s experiments did indeed account for 93% of the meaning inferred by people in the study. But this is not a general rule that you can transfer to any given communications situation.” However, such skepticism was difficult to find; the remaining 75 websites all simply passed along the numbers as being implicitly “correct.” These 75 sites provided the 7-38-55 numbers as “facts,” often with a fair amount of gusto. For example, one site (Beedon, 2005) states that “A staggering 93 percent of our communication is reported to be nonverbal.” Another site (Eisenberg, 2001) takes the Mehrabian formula so seriously that it notes, if you are sending an email, that “You have to do 100 percent of the work with only 7 percent of the resources.” Another (Barnathan, 2006) not only includes the numbers, but boldly adds “Almost 33 years later, that study has yet to be disproved.”
Identification of the Source
In 16 of the 79 websites (20%), Albert Mehrabian was identified as the source for these numbers. More commonly, in 34 of the 79 websites (43%), the references to the source of these numbers were much more indefinite, including:
- “one study at UCLA” (8)
- “a classic UCLA study” (1)
- “a study of communication” (6)
- “one study done in the United States” (1)
- “research shows” (1)
- “studies show” (5)
- “experts say” (3)
- “some students of communication say” (1)
- “a commonly cited statistic” (1)
- “statistics from the communication field” (1)
- “psychologists and anthropologists” (1)
- “other scientists” (1)
- “research in the field of neurolinguistics” (1)
- “according to several communicationists [sic]” (1)
- “Neuro-Linguistic Programming Psychologists” (1) and
- “clinical studies done over the past 40 years” (1)
Additionally, ten of the 79 sites (13%) listed a source other than Albert Mehrabian for these numbers, including:
- “Kristen Amundson (1993)” (2)
- “Joan Smith, a career coach at Women Employed” (1)
- “according to Black” (1)
- “Thomas Crane, in The Heart of Coaching” (1)
- “Bovee and Thill (2000)” (1)
- “Mele Koney and Alton Barbour” (1)
- “Dr. Phil” (1)
- “Straw” (1) and
- “the now infamous Dr. Moravian from Stanford University [sic]” (1).
Finally, in 19 of the 79 websites (24%), the 7-38-55 “formula” was simply provided without any attribution—i.e., it was asserted that these numbers were correct.
Types of Evidentiary Distortion Let us first keep in mind the focus of Mehrabian’s research. According to Mehrabian himself (Mehrabian & Ferris, 1967), the purpose of his research was to “find out how well people can judge the feelings of others” (p. 250). And in a personal correspondence (A. Mehrabian, personal communication, September 21, 1995), he confirmed this goal when he wrote, “Please remember that all my findings on inconsistent or redundant communications deal with communications of FEELINGS AND ATTITUDES.” So, it has never been Mehrabian’s conclusion that communication in general conforms to the 7-38-55 proportions; rather, he only believes it is applicable within the realm of interpreting the affect or emotional state of others. With this foundation established, we can now see whether his original research is viewed within this more narrow realm, or as a truism about communication in general.
Of the 79 sites referenced in this study, only one (Ragsdale, 2006) correctly described Mehrabian’s findings as involving the “emotional meaning” within communication. On the other hand, some 63 of the 79 sites (80%) used the 7-38-55 numbers as a general statement about the overall nature of communication. Another two sites (2.5%) discussed the figures in terms of the “total impact” of a message. Nine sites (11%) said that 93% of “communication effectiveness” came from the nonverbal message. One site stated that 93% of “a person’s attitude” is nonverbal, while another included the rather odd statement that “most of us believe 93% of what we sense non-verbally and only 7% of what we hear spoken.” Three remaining sites could not be readily categorized in this manner.
Another form of distortion involved what types of nonverbal messages were part of Mehrabian’s original research. The 1967 studies were concerned with the verbal message, the vocal/paralinguistic message, and the facial message. But some sources in this sampling of websites went further—a chapter in a management text (Principles of Management, n.d.), for example, declares that the “other 93 percent includes vocal intonations, facial expressions, posture, and appearance.” Or, another source (Pigford, 2000) takes a similarly expansive view: “According to several communicationists, people receive 93 percent of the message through nonverbal communicators—gestures, voice qualities, posture, appearance, and body language” (p. 182). Finally, another site transformed Mehrabian’s research into the false context of memory. Yewman (2007) says this “classic 1971 study” showed “that when asked what they remembered about a speaker, . . . audience members indicated just 7 percent of their recall was verbal (what was said), but 38 percent of their recall was vocal (how it was said) and 55 percent was visual (the speaker’s body language and confidence).”
Taken as a whole, it seems reasonable to conclude that virtually all of the 79 websites were mistaken in their understanding of Mehrabian’s original research. Indeed, with one or two exceptions, it is highly unlikely that any of these “sources of information” traveled back to the Journal of Consulting Psychology or the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology to read the actual studies upon which they were relying.