Tightrope walking
Photo: Art Streiber
It takes charisma. Scientists are just beginning to understand this alluring and elusive quality that makes us shine.
What is the X factor that links all the luminaries on O's Power List?

Is it stunning good looks, a sky-high IQ, a genius for witty banter? No, no, and no. It's charisma: an aura of personality that draws people in and holds their rapt attention. A George Clooney or a Sandra Bullock taps into this magic stuff at will—but so does your neighbor who brightens the dullest cocktail hour, or your office colleague with the infectious smile who's shimmying up the corporate ladder like Jack on his beanstalk.

Charisma is as seductive as it is elusive; its powers are hard to resist and equally hard to pinpoint. But in recent years, researchers have been studying this seemingly intangible quality—the je ne sais quoi that separates, say, a Bill Clinton from an Al Gore—and making it concrete. In doing so, they've taken what we think of as a mysterious gift and distilled it down to a science.

The Charisma Recipe

Charisma has three main ingredients, according to Ronald Riggio, PhD, professor of leadership and organizational psychology at Claremont McKenna College. They are expressiveness (a talent for spontaneously striking up conversations and easily conveying feelings); control (the ability to fine-tune your persona to fit the mood and social makeup of any group); and sensitivity (a gift for listening and sussing out other people's mind-sets). "A lot of charisma comes down to how you communicate," Riggio says. "It's your ability to pick up on other people's emotions as well as express your own."

This may sound highly subjective, but MIT computer scientist Alex Pentland, PhD, has found that all three of these traits can be measured empirically by studying the largely unconscious gestures and expressions we all make. For example, a modest amount of fidgeting and nervous energy—which might normally be viewed as a negative—is often a sign that someone is excited about a conversation and wants the other person to catch that same passion. "When a charismatic person connects with someone, their autonomic nervous system becomes aroused—their attention is locked onto that person and they're tingling with energy," Pentland says. One result: They talk faster. In fact, a 2005 study showed that people who speak quickly were rated as more charismatic than those who take their time.

A speaking style that's fast yet calm and fluid—no irregular pauses, only a few ums or you knows—is the most charismatic of all, because it shows that a person is confident about herself and her ideas. Charisma also shines through in gestures as simple as nodding your head when another person is talking, holding eye contact, and trading smiles, sures, and uh-huhs, which all demonstrate that you're listening—and ascribing importance—to what's being said. (TV hosts like Meredith Vieira and Kelly Ripa have made an art of that give-and-take.)

Such mimicking behaviors create a feedback loop that helps two people bond. "If we're nodding at and copying each other, we feel empathetic," Pentland explains. "Our bodies produce endorphins—natural opiates, basically. It's like being engaged in a synchronous dance." In fact, the "mirror neurons" that light up are the same ones activated in a baby's brain when she tries to copy her mother's facial expressions.


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