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.
To study that synchronous dance, Pentland and his colleagues at the MIT Human Dynamics Laboratory have developed a gadget that detects the signs of charisma and measures them in action. Called a sociometer, it's a wearable digital device about the size of an iPhone that's equipped with an infrared sensor and a tiny microphone. The gadget tracks patterns of speech and bodily movement, although it doesn't record one word of what's being said. Studies using the sociometer have found that people who incorporate lots of the unconscious gestures and expressions that researchers associate with charisma are more likely to be successful in pitching a new business venture or negotiating a salary hike.

In other words, it isn't just what you say but how you say it. "If a charismatic person pitches you a business plan, you're not going to know all the details," says Pentland. "But you know that she sounds like an expert and she's very enthusiastic, and you know that she seems honestly interested in you and what you think. So your mind makes a reasonable inference: 'This must be good!'"

Sounding like an expert and actually being one aren't always the same, of course—but researchers agree that bona fide charisma isn't a ruse. Nor can it be turned on and off like a light switch. "Truly charismatic people are authentic," says Howard S. Friedman, a professor of psychology at the University of California at Riverside, who developed a frequently cited measure of charisma called the affective communication test, or ACT. "It's not like Clark Kent walks into a party and turns into Superman."

As Riggio puts it, "Charisma is a skill set. Michael Jordan might be messing around on the basketball court, missing shots, but if someone challenges him to a game, he'd blow everyone away. That doesn't mean he's 'faking it.'" Charisma works the same way. "A charismatic person genuinely likes, and is curious about, other people," Riggio adds. "The emotional component of that is really hard to fake—you either pick up on other people's emotions or you don't."

The Attraction of Opposites

Though charisma hinges largely on expressiveness, control, and sensitivity, its magnetic power intensifies when you mix in mystery and contradiction, says Joseph Roach, PhD, a professor of theater and English at Yale. In his book It, Roach writes that a supremely charismatic person has two sides: He or she is warm and tough, strong and vulnerable, down-to-earth and one of a kind. Think JFK, or FDR—or think of the most charismatically well-endowed man in contemporary popular culture: Don Draper of Mad Men (played by Jon Hamm), who is wounded yet stoic, ardent yet repressed, a suave man of means hiding a hardscrabble past—a swami of the sale who throws his clients and colleagues off balance with his singular alchemy of charm, irritability, and laser-beam eye contact.

But even at the rarefied level of presidents, talk show hosts, and fictional advertising executives, charisma is never simply about one person casting a spell over another.

"I once watched Bill Clinton enter a room at Yale, and he knew instantly who needed him most," Roach says. "It was like radar. Diana, Princess of Wales, had this, too. She could walk into a hospice and know exactly who needed her, but—and this is the paradox that makes charisma so powerful—the suffering person knew that she, Diana, needed him or her, too. There's an arc of mutual need underneath this magic."

Though Diana bloomed into her role as "the People's Princess," she began her public life as gawky, moon-eyed "Shy Di." Like most of us, she had to dig deep to find the glittering charisma she carried inside herself all along.

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