Nowhere near 93% of communication is non-verbal

On a webpage for HR people entitled “Listen With Your Eyes: Tips for Understanding Nonverbal Communication” there is the following claim:

“One study at UCLA indicated that up to 93 percent of communication effectiveness is determined by nonverbal cues. Another study indicated that the impact of a performance was determined 7 percent by the words used, 38 percent by voice quality, and 55 percent by the nonverbal communication.”

This is pretty familiar. If you’ve done training in teaching or public speaking then there’s a good chance you will have heard it. It’s also wrong.

As this post from PsyBlog points out these numbers originate in two studies done in the 1970s by the UCLA psychologist Albert Mehrabian. However, these studies weren’t of communication in general but of the expression of emotions. And even within these limited parameters, there are good reasons to doubt if the experiments actually predict what would happen outside the lab.

This stands to reason. As Professor Max Atkinson points out in his book Lend Me Your Ears, the 93% rule would have some weird implications:

“If true, for example, it would mean that anyone who is unable to see a speaker’s facial expression, whether they are blind, in the dark, listening to a radio or talking to someone on the telephone, would only be able to understand 45 per cent of what was said to them. It would have made more sense for Shakespeare to have had Mark Anthony say, ‘Lend me your eyes’, and for the same correction to be made to the title of this book. Most absurd of all is the fact that, if only 7 per cent is verbally communicated, there would be no need for anyone ever to learn foreign languages, as we would already be able to understand 93 per cent of any particular one of them without any formal instruction at all.”

How Mozart smuggled secret music out of the Vatican

Today, as it has been for centuries, the Miserere will be performed as part of the Holy Wednesday Tenebrae service at the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel. Gregorio Allegri’s eerily beautiful a cappella choral work is now one of the most recognisable pieces of classical music. However, for more than a century after its composition it would have been one of the hardest pieces to hear. To preserve the aura around the Miserere it was only permitted to be performed in the Sistine Chapel itself and even then only twice a year: on Holy Wednesday and Good Friday.

The Sistine Chapel

Maintaining such restrictions required drastic measures. The punishment for transcribing the Miserere or performing it outside those two particular services was excommunication.

However, this attempt at official secrecy proved futile when faced with possibly the most precocious musical genius ever:

Three authorized copies of the work were distributed prior to 1770 – to the Holy Roman Emperor, Leopold I, to the King of Portugal, and to Padre (Giovanni Battista) Martini.[1] However, none of them succeeded in capturing the beauty of the Miserere as performed annually in the Sistine Chapel.[citation needed] According to the popular story (backed up by family letters), the fourteen-year-old Mozart was visiting Rome, when he first heard the piece during the Wednesday service. Later that day, he wrote it down entirely from memory, returning to the Chapel that Friday to make minor corrections. Some time during his travels, he met the British historian Dr Charles Burney, who obtained the piece from him and took it to London, where it was published in 1771. Once the piece was published, the ban was lifted; Mozart was summoned to Rome by the Pope, only instead of excommunicating the boy, the Pope showered praises on him for his feat of musical genius.

This story struck me because it shows the technical underpinnings of creative brilliance: that the ability to turn himself into a human Wikileaks that recorded and reconstructed the work of others was apparently linked to Mozart’s ability to produce apparently wholly original works.

What lessons does the father of the Indian constitution have for Western democracies?



Yesterday would have been the 123rd birthday of the Indian Jurist and political activist Dr B.R. Ambedkar. He is one of the most remarkable figures in the history of the twentieth century. Despite suffering incredible discrimination on account of being a Dalit or Untouchable, a member of the lowest caste, he became one of India’s most prominent intellectuals and the principal architect of its post-independence constitution. He also had an enormous legacy as an advocate for then end of ‘Untouchability.’

Writing for Daily News and Analysis (which is essentially India’s I), Asbah Farooqui makes an argument for Ambedkar’s continuing relevance. He points to a speech Ambedkar gave to the Constituent Assembly in 1949, on what India must do to remain a democracy. He argued it must not:

… content with mere political democracy. We must make our political democracy a social democracy as well. Political democracy cannot last unless there lies at the base of it social democracy. What does social democracy mean? It means a way of life which recognizes liberty, equality and fraternity as the principles of life. These principles of liberty, equality and fraternity as the principles of life. These principles of liberty, equality and fraternity are not to be treated as separate items in a trinity. They form a union of trinity in the sense that to divorce one from the other is to defeat the very purpose of democracy. Liberty cannot be divorced from equality, equality cannot be divorced from liberty. Nor can liberty and equality be divorced from fraternity. Without equality, liberty would produce the supremacy of the few over the many. Equality without liberty would kill individual initiative. Without fraternity, liberty would produce the supremacy of the few over the many. Equality without liberty would kill individual initiative. Without fraternity, liberty and equality could not become a natural course of things. It would require a constable to enforce them. We must begin by acknowledging the fact that there is complete absence of two things in Indian Society. One of these is equality. On the social plane, we have in India a society based on the principle of graded inequality which we have a society in which there are some who have immense wealth as against many who live in abject poverty. On the 26th of January 1950, we are going to enter into a life of contradictions. In politics we will have equality and in social and economic life we will have inequality. In politics we will be recognizing the principle of one man one vote and one vote one value. In our social and economic life, we shall, by reason of our social and economic structure, continue to deny the principle of one man one value. How long shall we continue to live this life of contradictions? How long shall we continue to deny equality in our social and economic life? If we continue to deny it for long, we will do so only by putting our political democracy in peril. We must remove this contradiction at the earliest possible moment or else those who suffer from inequality will blow up the structure of political democracy which is Assembly has to laboriously built up.

It seems to me that Farooqui is right to argue that this is a concern that is still relevant in modern India: a nation where politicians literally buying positive coverage from journalists is prevalent. However, it seems to me that his warnings may also be relevant to the West. Growing inequalities and declining social mobility are in many regards narrowing the difference between theoretically open societies and the one disfigured by caste hierarchies that Ambedkar was considering. There is a chilling similarity between what Ambedkar was arguing back then and the warnings of contemporary writers like Thomas Pinketty that we are seeing a self-reinforcing nexus of economic and political power. One can only imagine how horrified Ambedkar would have been by the US Supreme Court concluding that free speech protections give the super-wealthy the right to donate as much money as they wish to political campaigns, equal representation be damned.

John Wayne didn’t like horses

There’s a thorough review of a new biography of John Wayne in Salon. Its theme is the gap between Wayne’s image and the reality of his life. This is mostly in the service of making serious points about the cultural roots of American conservatism. However, the discrepancy that caught my eye was that:

the man who will forever be associated with  westerns didn’t like horses: “I don’t get on a horse unless they pay me.”

Opposites DON’T attract

Five Thirty Eight’s Emma Pierson reports that 86% of people of people say they want a partner who “complements” rather than “resembles” but uses data to show that in practice the reverse is true:

I studied 1 million matches made by the online dating website eHarmony’s algorithm, which aims to pair people who will be attracted to one another and compatible over the long term; if the people agree, they can message each other to set up a meeting in real life. eHarmony’s data on its users contains 102 traits for each person — everything from how passionate and ambitious they claim to be to how much they say they drink, smoke and earn.

The data reveals a clear pattern: People are interested in people like themselves. Women on eHarmony favor men who are similar not just in obvious ways — age, attractiveness, education, income — but also in less apparent ones, such as creativity. Even when eHarmony includes a quirky data point — like how many pictures are included in a user’s profile — women are more likely to message men similar to themselves. In fact, of the 102 traits in the data set, there was not one for which women were more likely to contact men with opposite traits.1

She goes on to show that this men and same-sex couples also exhibit this preference and finds it in other data sets too. Oh and she tries and fails to find any evidence of young, attractive women looking for ‘sugar daddies.’

“The Adventures of Lego Danny Alexander” may be my new favourite blog

A star is born!

A star is born!

“The Adventures of Lego Danny Alexander” may only be a few days old but I love it already. It exploits to full comedic effect the notion of watching a man who has looked out of his depth ever since he stopped being press officer for Cairngorms National Park trying to do one of the most difficult jobs in government.



Farewell “Stephen Colbert”, we’ll miss you!

It has been announced that the US comedian Stephen Colbert is to take over from David Letterman as host of The Late Show.

As Jesse David Fox argues this is in one sense a tragedy because it will mean the end of the Colbert’s alter ego “Stephen Colbert”, a brilliant parody of the right wing blowhards that populate Fox News and talk radio. To see why consider perhaps his best known (and most notorious) performance as the after dinner speaker at the 2006 White House Correspondents Dinner. This event is normally a clubby love in for Washington’s elite. However, Colbert used it as a chance to ridicule President Bush in his presence: