7%, 38%, 55% – the Facts

NLP Trainers – please stop spreading this misinformation!

Ever heard that statistic that only 7% of information in communication is conveyed by the words, 38% by voice tone, and 55% by body language? Well, it’s not strictly true – although regrettably, some NLP trainers are still quoting it in their courses.

The original experiments the statistic came from, by psychologist Albert Mehrabian, have been taken wildly out of context. These web pages set the record straight:



And from Mehrabian’s own web page at http://www.kaaj.com/psych/smorder.html, he makes the point that his original experiments were about feelings and attitudes:

“Total 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.


You might protest (especially if you’re one of those NLP Trainers) that, never mind where it came from, there must be a grain of truth in the statistic because it still feels true. Well, yes, it does feel kind of true, because as Gregory Bateson noted, non-verbal information like voice tone, body language, and facial expression give us a context against which to evaluate how sincere the speaker is, and what their relationship is to us. In my view that’s actually more useful and interesting than ‘percentages of meaning’ – more about Bateson’s insight here: Analogue and digital coding, and non-verbal communication

(Edit 9th June 2009) Again, Olivia Mitchell’s follow-up article ‘The secondary misinterpretation of Mehrabian’s research’ makes it clear the the ‘liking’, feelings and attitudes mentioned by Mehrabian are the listener’s perception of how the speaker feels – not how the listener feels about the speaker.

I could have sworn that there was also an article on the Fast Company web site debunking the use of these statistics out of context, but apparently not. I must have been thinking of the “Yale goal-setting study” (quoted by Anthony Robbins among many others) which seems to have never actually happened.

This post originally appeared in my first primitive attempt at a self-hosted blog way back in 2004. The original blog has vanished like the lost continent of Atlantis, but I’ll salvage anything I think is worthwhile and repost it here.

© 2023, Andy Smith. All rights reserved.

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