What Is The 7-38-55 Rule? 7-38-55 Rule In A Nutshell

The 7-38-55 rule was created by University of California psychology professor Albert Mehrabian and mentioned in his book Silent Messages.  The 7-38-55 rule describes the multi-faceted way in which people communicate emotions, claiming that 7% of communication occurred via spoken word, 38% through tone of voice, and the remaining 55% through body language.

Understanding the 7-38-55 rule

Mehrabian argued that 7% of communication occurred via spoken word, 38% through tone of voice, and the remaining 55% through body language.

That is, the way a listener deduces feelings, attitudes, or beliefs about what someone says to them is largely based on non-verbal communication.

The non-verbal elements are particularly important for communicating feelings and attitude, especially when they are incongruent: if words and body language disagree, one tends to believe the body language”,

Mehrabian once explained. 

The 7-38-55 rule is useful in a formal or informal negotiation process and is also used by law enforcement during interrogation.

Limitations of the 7-38-55 rule

The 7-38-55 has attained somewhat of a cult following as a “one-size-fits-all” approach to personal communication. 

However, Mehrabian clearly states his rule is only applicable in situations where voice tonality and body language are inconsistent with the words spoken.

In other words, it cannot be assumed that nonverbal behavior dominates communication in every context.

The rule is also useless in a digital context where communication is word-based or where the listener cannot see the speaker talking.

There are also several limitations to the original studies themselves, including:

Highly artificial context

In the study, communication tests were based on the judgment of the meaning of single, tape-recorded words.

Unreliable data

Final figures were obtained by combining the results of two rather unrelated experiments.

What’s more, data is only related to the communication of positive or negative emotions or situations with high ambiguity. 

Incomplete data

In the second of the two studies, men were excluded entirely.

Other applications of the 7-38-55 rule

Despite the limitations to his research methods, Mehrabian nonetheless highlighted the role and prevalence of nonverbal communication in a variety of contexts. 

His findings have been used to study the interactions between power, influence, and social attractiveness.

The social impact of his work is also apparent, with “The Mehrabian Snowball Effect” describing the ways skewed polling data could influence voter behavior. 

His emotional scales – once used to measure the reaction of study participants – have also been used to gauge consumer reactions to products, services, and even various shopping environments.

Furthermore, the scales have been used to measure the emotional reaction of employees to their workplace and the effects of an advertising campaign on recipients.

Lastly, Mehrabian’s rule has important applications for first impressions and subsequent customer retention.

Further research has found that the name of the individual, product, or business influences how each is perceived by members of the public.

Case Studies

  • Sales Training: Sales professionals often undergo training that includes understanding the importance of body language and tone of voice in influencing customer decisions. They learn to align their verbal communication with non-verbal cues to build trust and rapport.
  • Crisis Communication: During a crisis or emergency, public officials and leaders are aware that their body language and tone can significantly impact how the public perceives their response. They may receive training to convey empathy and reassurance effectively.
  • Public Speaking: Public speakers, including politicians and motivational speakers, are coached on how to use body language and tone to engage and connect with their audience. Effective non-verbal communication can enhance the delivery of their message.
  • Interview Skills: Job seekers are often advised to pay attention to their body language and tone during interviews. Maintaining eye contact, using confident body posture, and speaking with a positive tone can improve their chances of success.
  • Psychology Research: Psychologists and researchers may use the principles of the 7-38-55 rule to design experiments and studies related to communication and emotion. For example, they might investigate how people perceive sincerity based on verbal and non-verbal cues.
  • Marketing and Advertising: Advertisers and marketers consider the 7-38-55 rule when creating ad campaigns. They aim to evoke specific emotions through visuals, music, and voiceovers in addition to the ad’s message.
  • Conflict Resolution: Mediators and conflict resolution professionals understand the importance of non-verbal communication in resolving disputes. They pay attention to the parties’ body language and tone to gauge their emotions and guide the conversation.
  • Customer Service Training: Customer service representatives are trained to use their tone of voice effectively to convey empathy and understanding when dealing with customer complaints or issues. Non-verbal cues like active listening are essential in these interactions.
  • Leadership and Management: Effective leaders are aware of their non-verbal communication, especially when addressing their teams. A leader’s body language and tone can impact employee morale, motivation, and trust.
  • Relationship Counseling: Therapists and counselors often work with couples or individuals on improving communication skills. They address issues related to tone, body language, and the congruence between verbal and non-verbal messages.

Key takeaways

  • The 7-38-55 rule describes the multi-faceted way in which people communicate emotions. It was created by psychology professor Albert Mehrabian, who noted that 7% of communication occurred through spoken word, 38% through tone of voice, and 55% through body language.
  • The 7-38-55 rule has been misunderstood and misused by the general public since it was released. The rule is only applicable to situations where there is discord between verbal and non-verbal communication. It does not necessarily suggest that 93% of all communication is non-verbal.
  • Despite the limitations of the research on which it is based, the 7-38-55 rule has important applications in sales and negotiation. It has also been adapted to analyze voter and consumer behavior, social attractiveness, and the impact of product or business names on first impressions.

Key Highlights

  • Definition and Origin: The 7-38-55 rule was formulated by psychology professor Albert Mehrabian and is outlined in his book “Silent Messages.” It proposes that communication of emotions is composed of 7% spoken words, 38% tone of voice, and 55% body language.
  • Components of Communication: Mehrabian’s rule asserts that a significant portion of how people interpret emotions, attitudes, and beliefs is conveyed through non-verbal cues, including tone of voice and body language.
  • Usage and Application:
    • Negotiation and Law Enforcement: The rule finds use in both formal and informal negotiation settings and is also employed by law enforcement during interrogation to assess credibility.
    • Limitations: However, Mehrabian emphasized that the rule is applicable only when verbal and non-verbal cues are incongruent. It’s not a blanket rule for all communication contexts.
  • Limitations of the Rule:
    • Contextual Constraints: The rule doesn’t apply universally, especially in digital communication or when non-verbal cues are absent.
    • Artificial Study Context: The original studies were conducted in highly controlled settings, using single words to judge emotional meaning.
    • Incomplete and Unreliable Data: The rule’s figures are a combination of unrelated experiments and are limited to positive or negative emotions with ambiguity.
  • Other Applications:
    • Despite its limitations, Mehrabian’s rule has been applied to study power dynamics, social attractiveness, voter behavior influenced by skewed polling data, and reactions to products and advertising campaigns.
    • Emotional scales developed by Mehrabian have been used to assess reactions to workplaces, products, and advertising.
  • First Impressions and Customer Retention:
    • The rule has implications for first impressions and customer retention. It’s been found that names of individuals, products, or businesses impact public perceptions.
  • Key Takeaways:
    • The 7-38-55 rule, formulated by Albert Mehrabian, explains the proportion of communication attributed to spoken words, tone of voice, and body language.
    • The rule has been misinterpreted by the general public. It’s relevant only when verbal and non-verbal cues are contradictory.
    • Despite its limitations, the rule has applications in negotiation, sales, social attractiveness, and studying emotional reactions to various stimuli.
    • It underscores the importance of non-verbal cues in conveying emotions, attitudes, and beliefs in communication.

Connected Thinking Frameworks

Convergent vs. Divergent Thinking

Convergent thinking occurs when the solution to a problem can be found by applying established rules and logical reasoning. Whereas divergent thinking is an unstructured problem-solving method where participants are encouraged to develop many innovative ideas or solutions to a given problem. Where convergent thinking might work for larger, mature organizations where divergent thinking is more suited for startups and innovative companies.

Critical Thinking

Critical thinking involves analyzing observations, facts, evidence, and arguments to form a judgment about what someone reads, hears, says, or writes.


The concept of cognitive biases was introduced and popularized by the work of Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman in 1972. Biases are seen as systematic errors and flaws that make humans deviate from the standards of rationality, thus making us inept at making good decisions under uncertainty.

Second-Order Thinking

Second-order thinking is a means of assessing the implications of our decisions by considering future consequences. Second-order thinking is a mental model that considers all future possibilities. It encourages individuals to think outside of the box so that they can prepare for every and eventuality. It also discourages the tendency for individuals to default to the most obvious choice.

Lateral Thinking

Lateral thinking is a business strategy that involves approaching a problem from a different direction. The strategy attempts to remove traditionally formulaic and routine approaches to problem-solving by advocating creative thinking, therefore finding unconventional ways to solve a known problem. This sort of non-linear approach to problem-solving, can at times, create a big impact.

Bounded Rationality

Bounded rationality is a concept attributed to Herbert Simon, an economist and political scientist interested in decision-making and how we make decisions in the real world. In fact, he believed that rather than optimizing (which was the mainstream view in the past decades) humans follow what he called satisficing.

Dunning-Kruger Effect

The Dunning-Kruger effect describes a cognitive bias where people with low ability in a task overestimate their ability to perform that task well. Consumers or businesses that do not possess the requisite knowledge make bad decisions. What’s more, knowledge gaps prevent the person or business from seeing their mistakes.

Occam’s Razor

Occam’s Razor states that one should not increase (beyond reason) the number of entities required to explain anything. All things being equal, the simplest solution is often the best one. The principle is attributed to 14th-century English theologian William of Ockham.

Lindy Effect

The Lindy Effect is a theory about the ageing of non-perishable things, like technology or ideas. Popularized by author Nicholas Nassim Taleb, the Lindy Effect states that non-perishable things like technology age – linearly – in reverse. Therefore, the older an idea or a technology, the same will be its life expectancy.


Antifragility was first coined as a term by author, and options trader Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Antifragility is a characteristic of systems that thrive as a result of stressors, volatility, and randomness. Therefore, Antifragile is the opposite of fragile. Where a fragile thing breaks up to volatility; a robust thing resists volatility. An antifragile thing gets stronger from volatility (provided the level of stressors and randomness doesn’t pass a certain threshold).


Ergodicity is one of the most important concepts in statistics. Ergodicity is a mathematical concept suggesting that a point of a moving system will eventually visit all parts of the space the system moves in. On the opposite side, non-ergodic means that a system doesn’t visit all the possible parts, as there are absorbing barriers

Systems Thinking

Systems thinking is a holistic means of investigating the factors and interactions that could contribute to a potential outcome. It is about thinking non-linearly, and understanding the second-order consequences of actions and input into the system.

Vertical Thinking

Vertical thinking, on the other hand, is a problem-solving approach that favors a selective, analytical, structured, and sequential mindset. The focus of vertical thinking is to arrive at a reasoned, defined solution.

Metaphorical Thinking

Metaphorical thinking describes a mental process in which comparisons are made between qualities of objects usually considered to be separate classifications.  Metaphorical thinking is a mental process connecting two different universes of meaning and is the result of the mind looking for similarities.

Maslow’s Hammer

Maslow’s Hammer, otherwise known as the law of the instrument or the Einstellung effect, is a cognitive bias causing an over-reliance on a familiar tool. This can be expressed as the tendency to overuse a known tool (perhaps a hammer) to solve issues that might require a different tool. This problem is persistent in the business world where perhaps known tools or frameworks might be used in the wrong context (like business plans used as planning tools instead of only investors’ pitches).

Peter Principle

The Peter Principle was first described by Canadian sociologist Lawrence J. Peter in his 1969 book The Peter Principle. The Peter Principle states that people are continually promoted within an organization until they reach their level of incompetence.

Straw Man Fallacy

The straw man fallacy describes an argument that misrepresents an opponent’s stance to make rebuttal more convenient. The straw man fallacy is a type of informal logical fallacy, defined as a flaw in the structure of an argument that renders it invalid.

Google Effect

The Google effect is a tendency for individuals to forget information that is readily available through search engines. During the Google effect – sometimes called digital amnesia – individuals have an excessive reliance on digital information as a form of memory recall.

Streisand Effect

The Streisand Effect is a paradoxical phenomenon where the act of suppressing information to reduce visibility causes it to become more visible. In 2003, Streisand attempted to suppress aerial photographs of her Californian home by suing photographer Kenneth Adelman for an invasion of privacy. Adelman, who Streisand assumed was paparazzi, was instead taking photographs to document and study coastal erosion. In her quest for more privacy, Streisand’s efforts had the opposite effect.

Compromise Effect

Single-attribute choices – such as choosing the apartment with the lowest rent – are relatively simple. However, most of the decisions consumers make are based on multiple attributes which complicate the decision-making process. The compromise effect states that a consumer is more likely to choose the middle option of a set of products over more extreme options.

Butterfly Effect

In business, the butterfly effect describes the phenomenon where the simplest actions yield the largest rewards. The butterfly effect was coined by meteorologist Edward Lorenz in 1960 and as a result, it is most often associated with weather in pop culture. Lorenz noted that the small action of a butterfly fluttering its wings had the potential to cause progressively larger actions resulting in a typhoon.

IKEA Effect

The IKEA effect is a cognitive bias that describes consumers’ tendency to value something more if they have made it themselves. That is why brands often use the IKEA effect to have customizations for final products, as they help the consumer relate to it more and therefore appending to it more value.

Ringelmann Effect 

Ringelmann Effect
The Ringelmann effect describes the tendency for individuals within a group to become less productive as the group size increases.

The Overview Effect

The overview effect is a cognitive shift reported by some astronauts when they look back at the Earth from space. The shift occurs because of the impressive visual spectacle of the Earth and tends to be characterized by a state of awe and increased self-transcendence.

House Money Effect

The house money effect was first described by researchers Richard Thaler and Eric Johnson in a 1990 study entitled Gambling with the House Money and Trying to Break Even: The Effects of Prior Outcomes on Risky Choice. The house money effect is a cognitive bias where investors take higher risks on reinvested capital than they would on an initial investment.


As highlighted by German psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer in the paper “Heuristic Decision Making,” the term heuristic is of Greek origin, meaning “serving to find out or discover.” More precisely, a heuristic is a fast and accurate way to make decisions in the real world, which is driven by uncertainty.

Recognition Heuristic

The recognition heuristic is a psychological model of judgment and decision making. It is part of a suite of simple and economical heuristics proposed by psychologists Daniel Goldstein and Gerd Gigerenzer. The recognition heuristic argues that inferences are made about an object based on whether it is recognized or not.

Representativeness Heuristic

The representativeness heuristic was first described by psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. The representativeness heuristic judges the probability of an event according to the degree to which that event resembles a broader class. When queried, most will choose the first option because the description of John matches the stereotype we may hold for an archaeologist.

Take-The-Best Heuristic

The take-the-best heuristic is a decision-making shortcut that helps an individual choose between several alternatives. The take-the-best (TTB) heuristic decides between two or more alternatives based on a single good attribute, otherwise known as a cue. In the process, less desirable attributes are ignored.

Bundling Bias

The bundling bias is a cognitive bias in e-commerce where a consumer tends not to use all of the products bought as a group, or bundle. Bundling occurs when individual products or services are sold together as a bundle. Common examples are tickets and experiences. The bundling bias dictates that consumers are less likely to use each item in the bundle. This means that the value of the bundle and indeed the value of each item in the bundle is decreased.

Barnum Effect

The Barnum Effect is a cognitive bias where individuals believe that generic information – which applies to most people – is specifically tailored for themselves.

Anchoring Effect

The anchoring effect describes the human tendency to rely on an initial piece of information (the “anchor”) to make subsequent judgments or decisions. Price anchoring, then, is the process of establishing a price point that customers can reference when making a buying decision.

Decoy Effect

The decoy effect is a psychological phenomenon where inferior – or decoy – options influence consumer preferences. Businesses use the decoy effect to nudge potential customers toward the desired target product. The decoy effect is staged by placing a competitor product and a decoy product, which is primarily used to nudge the customer toward the target product.

Commitment Bias

Commitment bias describes the tendency of an individual to remain committed to past behaviors – even if they result in undesirable outcomes. The bias is particularly pronounced when such behaviors are performed publicly. Commitment bias is also known as escalation of commitment.

First-Principles Thinking

First-principles thinking – sometimes called reasoning from first principles – is used to reverse-engineer complex problems and encourage creativity. It involves breaking down problems into basic elements and reassembling them from the ground up. Elon Musk is among the strongest proponents of this way of thinking.

Ladder Of Inference

The ladder of inference is a conscious or subconscious thinking process where an individual moves from a fact to a decision or action. The ladder of inference was created by academic Chris Argyris to illustrate how people form and then use mental models to make decisions.

Goodhart’s Law

Goodhart’s Law is named after British monetary policy theorist and economist Charles Goodhart. Speaking at a conference in Sydney in 1975, Goodhart said that “any observed statistical regularity will tend to collapse once pressure is placed upon it for control purposes.” Goodhart’s Law states that when a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.

Six Thinking Hats Model

The Six Thinking Hats model was created by psychologist Edward de Bono in 1986, who noted that personality type was a key driver of how people approached problem-solving. For example, optimists view situations differently from pessimists. Analytical individuals may generate ideas that a more emotional person would not, and vice versa.

Mandela Effect

The Mandela effect is a phenomenon where a large group of people remembers an event differently from how it occurred. The Mandela effect was first described in relation to Fiona Broome, who believed that former South African President Nelson Mandela died in prison during the 1980s. While Mandela was released from prison in 1990 and died 23 years later, Broome remembered news coverage of his death in prison and even a speech from his widow. Of course, neither event occurred in reality. But Broome was later to discover that she was not the only one with the same recollection of events.

Crowding-Out Effect

The crowding-out effect occurs when public sector spending reduces spending in the private sector.

Bandwagon Effect

The bandwagon effect tells us that the more a belief or idea has been adopted by more people within a group, the more the individual adoption of that idea might increase within the same group. This is the psychological effect that leads to herd mentality. What in marketing can be associated with social proof.

Moore’s Law

Moore’s law states that the number of transistors on a microchip doubles approximately every two years. This observation was made by Intel co-founder Gordon Moore in 1965 and it become a guiding principle for the semiconductor industry and has had far-reaching implications for technology as a whole.

Disruptive Innovation

Disruptive innovation as a term was first described by Clayton M. Christensen, an American academic and business consultant whom The Economist called “the most influential management thinker of his time.” Disruptive innovation describes the process by which a product or service takes hold at the bottom of a market and eventually displaces established competitors, products, firms, or alliances.

Value Migration

Value migration was first described by author Adrian Slywotzky in his 1996 book Value Migration – How to Think Several Moves Ahead of the Competition. Value migration is the transferal of value-creating forces from outdated business models to something better able to satisfy consumer demands.

Bye-Now Effect

The bye-now effect describes the tendency for consumers to think of the word “buy” when they read the word “bye”. In a study that tracked diners at a name-your-own-price restaurant, each diner was asked to read one of two phrases before ordering their meal. The first phrase, “so long”, resulted in diners paying an average of $32 per meal. But when diners recited the phrase “bye bye” before ordering, the average price per meal rose to $45.


Groupthink occurs when well-intentioned individuals make non-optimal or irrational decisions based on a belief that dissent is impossible or on a motivation to conform. Groupthink occurs when members of a group reach a consensus without critical reasoning or evaluation of the alternatives and their consequences.


A stereotype is a fixed and over-generalized belief about a particular group or class of people. These beliefs are based on the false assumption that certain characteristics are common to every individual residing in that group. Many stereotypes have a long and sometimes controversial history and are a direct consequence of various political, social, or economic events. Stereotyping is the process of making assumptions about a person or group of people based on various attributes, including gender, race, religion, or physical traits.

Murphy’s Law

Murphy’s Law states that if anything can go wrong, it will go wrong. Murphy’s Law was named after aerospace engineer Edward A. Murphy. During his time working at Edwards Air Force Base in 1949, Murphy cursed a technician who had improperly wired an electrical component and said, “If there is any way to do it wrong, he’ll find it.”

Law of Unintended Consequences

The law of unintended consequences was first mentioned by British philosopher John Locke when writing to parliament about the unintended effects of interest rate rises. However, it was popularized in 1936 by American sociologist Robert K. Merton who looked at unexpected, unanticipated, and unintended consequences and their impact on society.

Fundamental Attribution Error

Fundamental attribution error is a bias people display when judging the behavior of others. The tendency is to over-emphasize personal characteristics and under-emphasize environmental and situational factors.

Outcome Bias

Outcome bias describes a tendency to evaluate a decision based on its outcome and not on the process by which the decision was reached. In other words, the quality of a decision is only determined once the outcome is known. Outcome bias occurs when a decision is based on the outcome of previous events without regard for how those events developed.

Hindsight Bias

Hindsight bias is the tendency for people to perceive past events as more predictable than they actually were. The result of a presidential election, for example, seems more obvious when the winner is announced. The same can also be said for the avid sports fan who predicted the correct outcome of a match regardless of whether their team won or lost. Hindsight bias, therefore, is the tendency for an individual to convince themselves that they accurately predicted an event before it happened.

Read Next: BiasesBounded RationalityMandela EffectDunning-Kruger EffectLindy EffectCrowding Out EffectBandwagon Effect.

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