Psychologists have developed the first scientific test of everyday charisma

GettyImages-673558204.jpgBy Christian Jarrett

“Figures such as Princess Diana, Oprah Winfrey, Mahatma Gandhi, Ronald Reagan, and Adolf Hitler share this triumphant, mysterious, and fascinating descriptor”, write the authors of a new paper on charisma. And yet, they add, “the empirical study of charisma is relatively young and sparse, and no unifying conceptualization of charisma currently exists”. The research and theorizing that has been done has focused on charismatic leadership, they explain, neglecting the everyday variety. In their paper in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology the University of Toronto researchers describe how they developed their new six-item measure “The General Charisma Inventory” (GCI), and they show how scores on the GCI are associated with people’s persuasiveness and likability.

The team, led by Konstantin Tskhay, began by asking just over a hundred American volunteers on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk online survey website to come up with four characteristics of charismatic individuals. The researchers then whittled these suggestions down in various stages, which involved volunteers rating the suitability of the items and other volunteers rating themselves on the items. Removing any redundancy, the researchers ended up with a six-item self-report measure of charisma loading onto two main factors to do with having influence over others (including being able to guide them) and coming across as affable (being able to make others feel comfortable and at ease).

Participants taking the new test are asked to rate their agreement on a five-point scale from 1 Strongly Disagree to 5 Strongly Agree, whether “I am someone who…”:

  • Has a presence in a room
  • Has the ability to influence people
  • Knows how to lead a group
  • Makes people feel comfortable
  • Smiles at people often
  • Can get along with anyone

(The first three items tap the influence factor of charisma and the last three items tap the affability factor.)

Having devised their test, the researchers put it through its paces in a number of ways. For example, they asked volunteers to complete the new charisma measure plus lots of other established psychological measures, and were able to show that scores on the new test are related to but distinct from established psychological constructs such as the Big Five personality traits, emotional intelligence and political skill. For instance, people’s scores on the the affability factor of the new test correlated with their trait Agreeableness, which makes conceptual sense. On the other hand, charisma scores appeared to be completely separate from intelligence, suggesting that “individual differences in general charisma are not redundant with cognitive ability”.

In another study the researchers asked small groups of unacquainted students to chat to each other for five minutes and to rate themselves and other group members on the charisma test. This showed that individuals’ charisma self-ratings on the test correlated with the charisma ratings they received from others. In another similar study, students’ self-ratings on the charisma test correlated with ratings they received from friends or family.

The researchers also asked pairs of unacquainted students to chat to each other for ten minutes and then rate each other’s likability. The students also rated themselves on standard personality measures and on the new charisma measure. The higher the students scored on charisma (specifically the affability factor), the more likable they tended to be rated by their partners, even after taking into account their scores on the Big Five personality traits of Extraversion, Agreeableness etc.

In another demonstration of the tests’ validity, the researchers asked more student volunteers to read out either a weak or strong argument for wind energy and then to complete the charisma test. Next, participants on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk listened back to the recordings and rated how persuasive they found them. When it came to the weak arguments, they found participants who’d scored themselves higher on charisma (specifically the influence factor) to be more persuasive. In relation to the affability factor, women who scored higher on this were rated as more persuasive, whereas for men the affability scores were not relevant (the researchers speculated this has to do with cultural expectations for women to be warm).

“We believe that the investigation of charisma in daily life is important for disentangling a construct previously understood primarily in terms of its consequences for leadership,” Tskhay and his colleagues concluded, “and hope that other researchers will share our enthusiasm about the potential new lines of research that this new conceptualization may elucidate.”

Charisma in Everyday Life: Conceptualization and Validation of the General Charisma Inventory

Image: April 2017 George Clooney attends the Lost In Space event at the Tate Modern (Photo by Karwai Tang/WireImage).

Christian Jarrett (@Psych_Writer) is Editor of BPS Research Digest


8 thoughts on “Psychologists have developed the first scientific test of everyday charisma”

  1. Interesting that this goes from GCI to CGI in the first paragraph! Should we read something into this?

  2. > “I am someone who…”:

    > Has a presence in a room

    What on earth does this mean? If they’re going to ask vague subjective questions like this one, why not simply ask a yes or no question of the form “am I a charismatic person” and correlate the results of that against the later results?

  3. Sorry, maybe I’m not that representative, but the list of ‘charismatic’ people don’t all fit with my idea of charisma. Hitler was a joke to many of his closest, as is Trump and Kim Jong un. Fear, social conformity pressure and notions of what qualities are desirable in an individual would seem to be at least as important as ‘likeability’. Different people are charismatic to different people. Too general…

Comments are closed.