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.

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.

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