Memes and Myths

More or Less is one of my favourite radio programmes. It’s all about the numbers and statistics that we come across in the news and in other aspects of our lives, including at work (I’ll readily admit that I’m somewhat strange in regard to finding this stuff interesting). Last week, it dealt with one of the all-time most misused statistics in learning and development: that 93% of communication is non-verbal. Or to put it in another form that many people have come across: communication is 55% body language, 38% tone of voice and 7% words.

On the programme, they interviewed the man whose work is so often missquoted, Dr Albert Mehrabian. He said:

“… whenever I hear that misquote or misrepresentation of my findings I cringe, because it should be so obvious to anybody who would use any amount of common sense that that’s not a correct statement …”

Wow, why’s it so popular then? Thankfully, this particular myth is steadily losing its small toehold of respectability and is disappearing from the masses of generic ‘communication’ courses that are run every year for thousands of managers. However, it’s just one example of a large number of misconceptions, misunderstandings and gross oversimplifications that are constantly being pushed out to managers in a range of learning interventions.

Here are just a few that I still see on a regular basis:

  • You only use 10% of your brain (elegantly debunked on Psyblog and by Donald H Taylor).
  • The left side of your brain is analytical, while the right side is creative (again, deconstructed on PsyBlog and by Donald H Taylor).
  • You should drink eight glasses of water a day,often alongside a claim that this ‘keeps the brain hydrated’ (Science Daily looked into this seven years ago and found the claim wanting).
  • The two greatest collections of myths in the corporate world are NLP and BrainGym (I’ll add a footnote with some links [1])

Why nonsense appears in learning interventions

What is it about learning and development that seems to be so open to these kind of myths? Well, it’s not just learning and development, this is a problem with modern society. The fact is, we are all more likely to believe something if it is dressed up in science-y sounding language (there’s even been a study showing this). What’s true of skin creams and shampoos is, unfortunately, equally true in the working world.

Dress something up in an easy to remember statistic and some scientific-sounding words and it will spread like wildfire.

Which is a shame, because there’s something useful that could be taken from some of these myths if it wasn’t for the nonsense that accompanied them. The whole left brain, right brain stuff is just a pseudo-scientific way of saying ‘people are different and often see the world from different perspectives’. A much less dramatic statement, but all the better for being true, pragmatic and not being stained with the accompanying science claptrap.

There’s even some lessons that can be learned from the twisted nightmare that is NLP. At a very basic level, building rapport on the basis that ‘people like people who are similar to themselves’ seems somewhat sensible. However, there’s no need for the whole ‘preferred representational system’ (visual, auditory, kinaesthetic etc.) stuff, nor the nonsense for where someone’s eyes move when they’re thinking. I’m quite sure some of it works, and if it does, why dress it up in scientific claims that it doesn’t need?

It needs to change

The truth is, this stuff wastes people’s time. It takes time to explain that 55% of communication is body language, 38% is tone of voice and 7% is words. It takes time to share a few carefully selected examples to show that it’s ‘true’. Time that could be spent on something useful. In addition, whenever these kinds of claims are made, it isn’t long before someone challenges it and, because it’s nonsense, the rest of the course/workshop/elearning package is discredited.

Grand announcements made by ‘consultants’ who pitch a model or theory that they claim they can back up with science or statistics should be treated with some scepticism. Quite often much of what they say falls down under scrutiny. The skill is in seeing whether there’s anything worthwhile beneath the veneer of scientific respectibility. We shouldn’t have to, but unfortunately we do.


[1] The claims of Brain Gym have been examined and picked to pieces by everyone from the BBC to individual bloggers. The two best analyses can be found at Bad Science (Ben Goldacre’s excellent blog/empire) and SkepDic, the Skeptics Dictionary.

NLP seems to evoke passionate feelings from both sides of the arguement. The Wikipedia article on the science behind NLP (or lack of it) covers the mains points pretty well.

This CreativityWorks video has been doing the rounds and demonstrates the problem with the 7% words figure: