Quick, Are You Charismatic?

JFK had it. So did Princess Diana. So does Bill Clinton. Charisma, that is. What accounts for it? Pool Photograph/ Dennis Van Tine/Corbis (c) 2015 HowStuffWorks

They called it the Kennedy “mystique,” an effortless magnetism and mysterious charm possessed by U.S. President John F. Kennedy and much of his extended political clan. Social psychologists call it charisma, that perfect storm of social intelligence, emotional expressiveness, quick humor and “celebrity” appeal that makes people like JFK — and other natural leaders — so captivating and influential.

The crowd of candidates fighting for the United States presidential nomination in 2016 would kill for a fraction of Kennedy's charisma. Studies show that voters ultimately choose the candidate whom they “like,” which is much more a product of personal charisma than specific policy positions.

If charisma is the magic ingredient for leadership, then where does it come from, and how can you get more of it? Is there any hope for the hopelessly dull?

Bill von Hippel is a social psychologist who studies social intelligence — how humans successfully (or unsuccessfully) navigate social interactions using a host of complex cues — at the University of Queensland in Australia.

“Charisma is an important component of social intelligence,” von Hippel explains via email. “It doesn't guarantee that people will have any of the other aspects of social intelligence, but it does make people compelling and attractive.”

In a recent paper published in Psychological Science, von Hippel says he's identified one of the strongest sources of charisma: a quick mind.

Well “duh,” Bill. Smart people are always going to be more charismatic, right?

Not quite, says von Hippel. It turns out that general intelligence alone is not a strong indicator of charisma. (If so, we'd elect more theoretical physicists and fewer career politicians.) But mental “quickness” — both quick-wittedness and the ability to quickly read and respond to social cues — is a sure sign of a charismatic personality.  

From von Hippel's Psychological Science paper (plain English translation to follow):

“... mental speed allows people to judge situational demands rapidly, consider a wide repertoire of responses within a socially appropriate response window, mask inappropriate initial reactions by rapidly presenting a nondominant response, and make time-sensitive humorous associations.”

In other words, quick thinkers come up with funny and unexpected things to say, instead of the same old boring (“dominant”) banter. That's one of the main reasons charismatic people are more fun to hang out with. Plus, they're better at hiding their inappropriate responses. 

"Most people are willing to admit that a friend of theirs might be a good bloke but is nonetheless as interesting as a bar of soap."
Bill von Hippel, Psychology Professor, University of Queensland, Australia

How exactly did von Hippel and colleagues make the connection between quickness and charisma? First, he recruited nearly 200 college students who shared some common friends. He then had them rate each of their friends (confidentially, of course) on a three-part “charisma scale” — how quick-witted, funny and generally charismatic they are.

He wasn't worried about people exaggerating their friends' positive characteristics. "Most people are willing to admit that a friend of theirs might be a good bloke but is nonetheless as interesting as a bar of soap," he says. Plus each person was getting more than one rating, which balanced things out.

Next, all participants were given a simple 30-question “general knowledge” test — “Name a precious gem,” for example — and timed for the speed of their responses. The team did measure accuracy, but it turns out it didn't make a difference, since the questions were so easy that people rarely missed them. In a second test, participants had to quickly identify the location of dots and matching patterns on a computer screen. 

The test results showed a strong correlation between the quickest responders and the highest-rated charismatic individuals. That correlation remained strong even when IQ and other personality indicators were factored out. In fact, intelligence by itself had almost no connection to charisma.

“I expected speed to predict charisma, but I thought intelligence would be a stronger predictor," says von Hippel. "It turns out, however, that being quick is more important than being smart.” However, he says, speed isn't the only source of charisma. "It's quite possible to be charismatic even if you aren't quick on your feet. Our work just shows that being quick makes it easier to be charismatic."

So if that's the case, is there anything we can do to think faster, other than drink more coffee?

“We can't make our mind work faster than it naturally does, but we can prepare for upcoming social or business events by thinking about the kinds of issues that might arise in conversation,” von Hippel says. And with enough preparation, he adds, we can “give others the impression that we are quicker than we really are.” Candidates take note.