Consultants, training and Mehrabian

I recently attended a day-long Project Management course. Building a lego tower made an enjoyable change to my daily routine but  our trainer made one or two claims about psychology and personality theory that I doubted. Living with a Psychologist sometimes isn’t easy.

For example, I was surprised at the uncritical claims made by our trainer for the work of Jung. This is the Jung who, as a follower of Freud, had no problem with the idea of an unconscious mind (rather than unconscious mental processes), who contended that alchemical symbols had a direct relationship to the ‘psychoanalytic process’, whatever that may mean, who believed in a Collective Unconscious shared by everything with a nervous system and who suggested that flying saucers were  an expression of an archetype.

Given all this, I tend to be sceptical of claims of truth rooted in Jungian theory. I become doubly sceptical when the person making the claim, faced with perfectly natural incredulity about some counter-intuitive assertions, simply appeals to authority. And when that authority is Jung, well, then I need to go and check the facts.

In this case the claims were for the efficacy and accuracy of a theory of personality types based on a 2-factor model:  personalities could be assigned a position in a 2-dimensional space using the supposedly independent axes of Assertiveness and Responsiveness. Our trainer incorrectly stated  – and incorrectly restated   –  that these axes and the personality inventory we had all completed before the day began were designed by Jung. They weren’t. This Social Styles model derives from the work of David Merrill.

the 2 dimensions of Merrill’s social styles model

This model can hardly be seen to derive from even a simplification of  Jung’s basic attitudenal axis of intraversion-extraversion, combined with his four functional types  – Thinking, Feeling, Sensation and Intuition  – and to describe it as directly and specifically the work of Jung is clearly incorrect.

And what is it worth? It’s extraordinarily popular on the web but is there much to a categorisation of people in this 2-dimensional space? What evidence is there that these two factors are orthogonal? That they are fundamental?

It seems unlikely that the salient features of everyone’s  ‘social style’ could be adequately described in such a simple model and the ready availability of other models using different factors and different numbers of factors suggest that this particular model might not have much purchase in reality. Goldberg has a 5-dimensional model; Eysenck has three; Holland has six; Allport names three levels of traits; Cattell, two tiers of sixteen and five factors respectively.

These models all suffer from the well-known criticisms of all trait-thories: of being essentially descriptive rather than explanatory; of being over-simplifications; of being superficial; of ignoring situational dependencies; and of being statistical generalisations that do not correspond to individual behaviour. I certainly wouldn’t base my decisions on them or alter my behaviour because of them.

The next contentious assertion made by our trainer was about Mehrabian‘s studies that appeared  – to our trainer – to suggest that only 7% of communication was in the content of what was spoken, with – according to her –  38% provided by ‘accent’ (presumably Mehrabian’s ‘tone’) and the remaining 55% by bearing or posture (Mehrabian’s ‘facial expression’).

This was simply a misunderstanding, or misrepresentation of Mehrabian’s studies and conclusions, surprising for such an experienced trainer who had some edcuation in Psychology. It’s a very common misrepresentation amongst management consultants, sales trainers, and suchlike.

Mehrabian’s studies asked participants to judge the feelings of a speaker by listening to a recording of a single word spoken in different tones of voice. That was it. Mehrabian himself has become sufficiently exasperated to publish a warning on his website :

Please note that this and other equations regarding relative importance of verbal and nonverbal messages were derived from experiments dealing with communications of feelings and attitudes (i.e., like-dislike). Unless a communicator is talking about their feelings or attitudes, these equations are not applicable.

and he goes on to say:

I am obviously uncomfortable about misquotes of my work. From the very beginning I have tried to give people the correct limitations of my findings. Unfortunately the field of self-styled ‘corporate image consultants’ or ‘leadership consultants’ has numerous practitioners with very little psychological expertise

None of Mehrabian’s concerns, or the critiques made by other researchers, were mentioned by our trainer.

Still, the lego was fun.