LINGUIST List 12.1170

Fri Apr 27 2001

Qs: "Content"/Contributions of Different Modalities

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  1. Richard Sproat, Contributions of different modalities to "content"

Message 1: Contributions of different modalities to "content"

Date: Thu, 26 Apr 2001 09:23:39 -0400
From: Richard Sproat <>
Subject: Contributions of different modalities to "content"

I was recently in a management training course that included a section
on "communication". The instructor put up a table with the heading
"content", and the rows labeled "visual" (by which she meant
"gesture"), "auditory" (by which she meant "prosody and intonation")
and "language" (by which she meant the words used), and she asked the
class if they had any idea of what percentage of content (by which she
seemed to mean the meaning of an utterance or collection of
utterances) is conveyed by each of these modalities. After various
class members had hazarded a guess she put up the "correct" answer:
"visual" contributes 55%, "auditory" 38% and "language" 7%. This, she
claimed has been well established by "experts" on communication.

When I tried to probe further, the only "evidence" for these claims
consisted of examples that demonstrated that if you have an
incongruity between the modalities (e.g. "I'm fine", said with an
angry expression and intonation), then people get a mixed message and
don't assume that the literal meaning of the words ("language") is
correct. That much is unassailable, but of course it doesn't show
anything about which modality is more important for conveying
information (or what is even meant by "information"), let alone the
percentages she claimed.

I asked her for some references to the books or papers on which she
was basing her claims, and she did promise to send me some
references. But as I had anticipated, she never did, and I am
therefore wondering: is anyone out there familiar with the literature
that this instructor was presumably basing her claims on here? I'd be
particularly interested in where these magic numbers (55-38-7) come
from because I can't figure out how you would even estimate
these. (And no, I don't think information theory in the formal sense
is how this could have been done. If nothing else, had one worked out
some information theoretic measure of the information content of the
different modalities, "language" would certainly rank much higher than
the others.)

What bothers me about this is this seems on the face of it to be
precisely the kind of pseudoscientific nonsense that passes for
science to the unitiated. My classmates in this course were evidently
not disposed to question the assertions made by the instructor,
especially when backed up by the claim that "experts" on communication
had established this. A couple even came to the instructor's aid by
offering further trite examples that, like the instructor's own
examples, did nothing to support the central claim. But maybe I'm
missing something?

Richard Sproat Human/Computer Interaction Research AT&T Labs -- Research, Shannon Laboratory
Tel: +1-973-360-8490 180 Park Avenue, Room B207, P.O.Box 971
Fax: +1-973-360-8809 Florham Park, NJ 07932-0000
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