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Storytelling In The News: #113

Dr. Condoleezza Rice tells her story: form vs content

The work of Albert Mehrabian

April 8, 2004

One of the most striking and surprising pieces of conventional wisdom in communications theory is the claim that 93% of our communication is non-verbal and only 7% is content. The theory derives from the work of Albert Mehrabian, a professor at UCLA, who put it forward in two books, Silent Messages published in 1971, and Nonverbal Communications published in 1972.

This morning seems to be be a suitable moment to revisit Mehrabian's theory at a time when the most mesmerizing story in the world was being told by Dr. Condoleezza Rice, National Security Adviser to President Bush. Billed as the great showdown between the US administration and its critics, after the White House had refused to allow her to testify under oath before the 9/11 commission, her storytelling performance was covered live by all major television networks and was compulsive viewing in offices, schools and homes.

Initial verdict: "Rice won it"

According to TV critic Tom Shales, "if it were to be viewed as a battle, or a sporting event, or a contest -- and of course that would be wrong -- then Condoleezza Rice won it... As usual, Rice was a model of dignity and composure, even when some commissioners got testy... She can, and did, issue such retorts as "May I address the question, sir?" and "I would like to answer" and "If you just give me a moment" without sounding surly or raising her voice. She probably could have done the whole thing with a teacup and saucer balanced on her head. She's that cool.

Rice's testimony followed that of counter terrorism expert Richard Clarke, who in TV appearances and a best-selling book has charged the Bush administration with failing to heed warning signs leading up to the 9/11 attacks. In response, the Bush camp has been trying to squash Clarke like a bug.

Polls confirm Rice's "victory"

Shales predicted that polls, if taken, are likely to reflect that Rice did the administration considerable good, at least temporarily, in her appearance yesterday. While noting there were "from time to time contentious disagreements," anchor Dan Rather of CBS News said at the end of the session, "Dr. Rice's performance was steady and composed." Television, it has been said, is not a content medium, another way of saying that in TV, the style is the content (both of which may be paraphrases of Marshall McLuhan's famous observation that "the medium is the message").

Shales' prediction that Rice helped her cause was duly borne out. A Time/CNN survey taken on April 8 showed that 48 percent of Americans said they believe the Bush administration did all it could to prevent the attacks, up from 42 percent in a poll taken March 26-28.

A CBS News poll, also conducted on April 8, showed 32 percent of Americans said the administration did everything possible to stop the attacks, up from 22 percent the previous week.

The Time/CNN poll found that 43 percent of Americans were more likely to believe Rice's testimony, while 36 percent believe Clarke's and 21 percent weren't sure which person to believe.

Some remaining issues of content

Yet despite this "victory", President Bush and Rice are not entirely out of the woods yet. Despite Rice's contention that the administration had done all that it could, the CBS News poll showed that 60 percent said they still believed the administration didn't do enough to stop the attacks.

Rice's masterly performance in terms of form still left some issues of content. Thus while Rice contended that the threats reported to the administration were all overseas, she was forced to admit that the very title of the President's Aug. 6, 2001, "PDB" (President's Daily Briefing), which came up often in testimony yesterday, was, "Bin Laden Determined to Strike Inside U.S." Despite Rice's contention that the document was "historical", the document, not yet declassified, is alleged by critics of the administration to contain specific threats within the US.

Form vs content in communication

The question whether form can overcome content brings us back to Mehrabian's theory that communication is 93% non-verbal and only 7% content. On the face of it, Mehrabian's theory isn't easy to believe. How, for instance, could one communicate Mehrabian's 93%-7% theory itself in non-verbal terms? Or can one get 93% of a movie by watching without the sound? Or can one dispense learning a foreign language simply by watching for non-verbal cues? These issues nudged a curious student, Dr. C. E. "Buzz" Johnson, to go back to the original research and conclude that the 93%-7% theory is at least in part a myth.

According to Mehrabian's theory, the total message one receives in any face to face communication is divided into three components:

* The words themselves which communicate 7%

* The tonality used in delivering those words which is meant to convey 38%

* The body language accompanying the other two, which is said to convey 55%.

The specific methodology of Mehrabian's study

Johnson examines the specifics of the experiments from which form the basis for the conventional wisdom. The Journal of Consulting Psychology, 1967, Vol. 31. No. 3, pg. 248-252 is a report entitled Inference Of Attitudes From Nonverbal Communication In Two Channels. This study was designed to investigate the decoding of inconsistent and consistent communications of attitude in facial and vocal channels. The experimental team found that the facial component received approximately 3/2 the weight received by the vocal component. You can readily see that this roughly corresponds to the 38% and 55% figures mentioned earlier.

Johnson points out in detail how Mehrabian's study was conducted.

There was only one word used. That word was "maybe," selected for it's apparent neutrality. Three female speakers were tape recorded saying that word wile varying their tone of voice so as to communicate three different attitudes (i.e., like, neutral, and dislike) towards an imagined addressee. Then the tapes were listened to by 17 female subjects with instructions to imagine that the speaker is saying this word to another person and judged by the tones what the speaker's attitude is towards that imaginary addressee. So there was no direct feedback by anyone who was being addressed. It was a number of third-party listeners who were asked to mind-read, guess, interpret, imagine, etc., how the speaker felt towards someone who wasn't even there and, in fact, didn't even exist. There was no way to see or hear the reactions of this phantom individual, about whom someone was going to make several long-lasting and powerful speculations.

Next, black and white photographs were taken of three female models as they attempted to use facial expressions to communicate like, neutrality, and dislike towards another person. Then photos were shown to the same 17 subjects with the instructions that they would be shown the pictures and at the same time hear a recording of the word "maybe" spoken in different tones of voice. "You are to imagine that the person you see and hear (A) is looking at and talking to another person (B)." For each presentation they were to indicate on a rating scale what they thought A's attitude was toward B. Again, third-party mind-reading with no direct contact with the person addressed, B, because that person was non-existent. The conclusions from this experiment were that the facial components were stronger than the vocal by the ratio of 3/2 as referred to earlier.

They integrated this study with another one to come up with the .07, .38, and .55 coefficients. This second study was reported in the Journal of personality and Social Psychology, 1967, Vol. 6, No. 1, pg. 109-114 entitled, Decoding Of Inconsistent Communications. Here they dealt with inconsistent communication of attitude in two components; tone of voice and nine different words. Three words were selected that seemed to indicate a positive attitude, "honey," "thanks," and "dear." Three were neutral, "maybe," "really," and "oh," and three were negative, "don't," "brute," and "terrible."

Two female speakers were employed to read each of the nine words with each of the three tones, positive, neutral, or disliking of an imaginary addressee. These were recorded on tape which was then listened to by 30 University of California undergraduates.

They were instructed to imagine that each word was being said by one person to another and to judge what the speaker's attitude was towards the imaginary recipient. One-third were told to ignore the information conveyed by the meaning of the words and to pay attention only to the tone. Another third were told to ignore the tone and pay attitude only to the meaning of the words. The last third were told to utilize both the tone and the content.

The findings were that the independent effects of tone, overall, were stronger than the independent effects of content. I should think so! After all, the words allowed were very limited while the tones allowed were unlimited as long as certain feelings were being demonstrated. But, after all, Mehrabian's main interest is in non-verbal types of communication. However, in fairness, it was mentioned in the discussion that the methodology used failed to solve the problem for which it was intended. An alternative methodology could have employed written communication for assessing the independent effects of content and electronically filtered speech (with the content rendered incomprehensible) for assessing the independent effects of tone. I don't know if an alternative experiment like that was ever carried out.

After commenting on some of the methodological problems, they do go on to say that the results indicate that judgments of attitude from inconsistent messages involving single words spoken with intonation are primarily based on the attitude carried in the tonal component. The use of single words is a long way away from normal communications, don't you think? In fact, they admit that their findings can only be safely extended to situations in which no additional information about the communicator-addressee relationship is available. This seems to relegate it to the realm of tightly controlled laboratory-pure experimentation only.

Johnson's analysis sheds helpful light on Mehrabian's widely quoted study and indicates that it should be limited to the decoding of inconsistent messages and in any event be applied with caution outside a laboratory setting.

These qualifications were contained in Mehrabian' original research, even though they have been ignored by subsequent interpreters. When we examine the Chapter 3 of Silent Messages we find that the numbers 7-38-55 expressed as percentages have to do only with what he calls the resolution of inconsistent messages. Mehrabian also states that there are very few things that can be communicated non-verbally. He initially was investigating liking/ disliking which he later generalized into feelings. When Johnson talked to Mehrabian by by phone in March, 1994, Mehrabian stated that his findings and inferences were not meant to be applied to normal communications. They are of limited application.

The application of Mehrabian's theory to Rice's testimony

Even if Mehrabian's theory has been somewhat over-stated by subsequent commentators, nevertheless non-verbal communication is clearly important when decoding detected inconsistencies. Rice was relatively effective in matching tone, body language and content with the result that there were relatively few inconsistencies to decode. Hence despite some substantive inconsistencies, her story was effective in advancing her case.

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