October 11, 2006

Messages, verbal and nonverbal

Without appreciating that the review in the New York Times Book Review came from that prominent anthropologist and social psychologist Christopher Buckley, and without recalling Mark Liberman's mentions, in his pursuit of Louann Brizendine's claims about male/female differences, of Allan Pease's earlier books, I was moved by the review to buy The Definitive Book of Body Language by Allan and Barbara Pease (Bantam Books, 2006).  Well, I buy a lot of books.  I thought this  one would be popular science (in the sense of science writing for the nonspecialist), but it seems to be folk-pop science, playing to folk beliefs and hawking a pop self-improvement message: YOU can learn to read and manipulate body language to your advantage (in the business world, especially).

If you read at all critically, you'll be deeply suspicious of the book within a few pages.  It's full of wide-ranging unsourced claims about what research has shown (women are more perceptive than men, better at multitasking, and much more), bold assertions about what particular gestures and stances "mean", and other dubious statements.  When I've been easily able to investigate the claims, they are drastically overblown.  And often I have no easy way to evaluate them.

Query: what are "the most persuasive words in spoken language"?  The Peases tell us that "a study at the University of California" (not further identified) found a dozen, and they counsel us:

Practice using these words.  The new results you'll get from the discovery of these proven words will guarantee you more love, better health, and will save you money.  And they're completely safe and easy to use.

While you're mulling over persuasive words, let me note that on p. 9 the Peases report that

Albert Mehrabian, a pioneer researcher of body language in the 1950's, found that the total impact of a message is about 7 percent verbal (words only) and 38 percent vocal (including tone of voice, inflection, and other sounds) and 55 percent nonverbal.

What Mehrabian says on his website is a much more limited claim:

My findings on this topic have received considerable attention in the literature and in the popular media. "Silent Messages" [1981] 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.

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.

The Peases are repeating a widespread misinterpretation of Mehrabian's claims -- something much more stunning than what he actually said (and even that could probably bear some looking at).

Okay, those persuasive words.  There were heavy hints in the quotation about them above:

discovery, guarantee, love, proven, results, save, easy, health, money, new, safety, you

I suspect that the Peases have blown up the research they're reporting on here, just as in the Mehrabian case.

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Posted by Arnold Zwicky at October 11, 2006 10:48 AM