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March 28, 2017

How to Influence Charisma

Charismatic people captivate their followers, motivate and influence them. But what exactly is charisma? The old question about charisma is returning to the political scene, hand in hand with populism. Susan Reh and Prof. Niels Van Quaquebeke from KLU teamed up with Steffen R. Giessner from Erasmus University Rotterdam to provide new answers to the phenomenon of charisma in a recently published journal article. They say that charisma cannot be explained by rational arguments and social competency alone. Personal and environmental-specific signals such as size, color, temperature, and distance also determine whether or not a person is charismatic.

It is difficult to grasp what exactly charisma is. Until now, most of the approaches to explaining it have targeted leaders’ behavior and communication habits. In their article, the team of scientists indicates that charisma can exert its effect even without any concrete interaction. Signals that can be physically perceived – called embodied signals – are the key. “People transmit signals such as size, facial structure and vocal register,” explained Susan Reh, a PhD candidate at KLU. “The taller the person, the more hawkish their facial features and the deeper their voice, the more widespread the perception that they are charismatic.” And people don’t even have to send out their own signals. “There are also relevant environmental signals,” said Reh. “For example, signals that symbolize purity white and not black, light instead of darkness, and clean instead of dirty. When many of these signals are used together, this reinforces the charismatic effect if the rest of the message adds up.” Temperature also has an impact on the perception of charisma: In warm environments, people feel more attracted to leaders.

Prof. Niels Van Quaquebeke adds: “Our research shows that a few tricks can influence a person’s charisma. This is interesting for leaders who want to boost their aura of charisma, for example.” The results could also interest other target groups, such as human resources employees and journalists, who want to evaluate leaders and managers as objectively as possible. “And of course the population of voters,” added Van Quaquebeke. “Voters should be aware of how physical attributes can distort their perception during an election campaign – hopefully before submitting their ballots.” The way dictators set themselves in scene is a perfect example of how to boost an aura of charisma, according to Reh and Van Quaquebeke. For example, people must look upward to see them, they surround themselves with the color red to suggest strength, and may only be photographed from an upward angle. “But the way political leaders in the US or Russia are staged today also provides a lot to analyze,” said Van Quaquebeke.



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