Charisma: It’s All in Your Head for a Reason

This is your brain on charisma.

It sure feels good to finally decide on something when we need to make a decision about it. And it feels good when we decide that we can trust in someone else. But did you ever wonder why? At what point does the feeling become the point of, rather than the result of, our decisions? An interesting study by a group of Danish brain researchers may give us some insight into that, and into why relinquishing decisions can feel powerfully comforting for some people and not for others.

First of all, let’s be honest: making decisions is risky, time consuming, anxiety-producing, fraught with failure, and prone to unintended consequences. And so many of the really important decisions are among the least clear to make. It’s no surprise that we might actually enjoy not having to do it, especially if we thought someone else could do it better.

And many of these decisions are social in that they require us to come together in groups and put our trust in leaders who advocate for the actions and ideas that unite and direct them. Being willing to “get on board” with a group and trust the leader is a necessary element of social life. Our ability to get anything done collectively – from families to religion and politics – depends on it. It’s no wonder (as Max Weber speculated at the dawn of Sociology) that followers need to perceive that their leaders have special powers.

Charisma: a compelling attractiveness or charm that can inspire devotion in others. ORIGIN mid 17th cent. (sense 2) : via ecclesiastical Latin from Greek kharisma, from kharis ‘favor, grace.’

The ability to project the sense of having “special powers” is large part of what we call “charisma.” Most leaders have it, but some are especially good at casting an enrapturing spell that creates true believers among followers. How does that happen, and why does it feel good when we respond to someone’s charisma by placing our faith in him (or her)? The answer seems to be that we get relief and a rush from turning off our troubled and overworked decision center and its “executive functions” in the brain.

That’s right. When we perceive someone as charismatic, we actually switch off the brain functions that help us to put information into context, allow us be skeptical, and assess what we’ve been told. And what’s more, we actually appear to “hand over” these higher executive functions to people we perceive as being charismatic for them to mold and shape. And, you know what? We really, really like it.

Groupthink: a term coined by social psychologist Irving Janis (1972). The practice of thinking or making decisions as a group where group pressures discourage creativity or individual responsibility and lead to a deterioration of “mental efficiency, reality testing, and moral judgment.”

Why? Well, although we often think of ourselves as individuals, we are really social creatures. In fact, we are hardwired to be powerfully rewarded with feelings of security, fulfillment, and pleasure when we give control to group leaders and adapt our beliefs and behaviors to groups. Perceptions of charisma may help form effective groups by identifying which leaders would be the most effective (and pleasurable) to hand our collective brains over to.

We sometimes need charisma to make common endeavors work. But what happens when the it's all going in the wrong direction?

However, the Danish study shows that people will hand their brains over to people whom they are only told are charismatic. Just the belief that someone is a charismatic leader of the group is enough for group members to shut down executive functions and start enjoying the feeling. That’s pretty scary. It indicates that charisma isn’t always something that other people use to beguile us unwillingly: it’s something that we’re practically begging to be beguiled by. And although Danish Pentecostal Christians were the test subjects in this study, Pentecostal Christians aren’t the only ones susceptible. Look around: it isn’t hard to find people who have shut their brain off for Sarah Palin, Barack Obama, Glen Beck, and a host of other political, cultural, and religious leaders.

Such people give me the heebie-jeebies, even when I agree with them. Once a leader’s charisma begins to envelop people around me I become deeply suspicious and less trustful. Instead of feeling more secure in the developing group Snuggie, I feel trapped and suffocated. And I feel the need bolt and then to call attention to what is happening from the sidelines.  Maybe that helps explain why I’ve spent the better part of my adult life trying to teach others to think for themselves. But brains, overall, love charisma and group snuggies. Maybe that’s why what I do only seems to work part of the time.

It all makes me wonder – are there natural followers and born-to-be true believers? I think so. We’ve all known people who are deeply mired in, and impervious to anything outside of, their groupthink. It wouldn’t surprise me if their neurobiology were predisposed to settling into group thought and becoming less plastic as they are rewarded by a strong internal sense of satisfaction that both confirms their “choice” and ensures their loyalty. And most of us know other people who careen from group to group and from enthusiastic belief to enthusiastic belief. It wouldn’t surprise me if, like circuit breakers, their executive functions become more and more susceptible to being tripped by surges of charisma, which doesn’t give their brains time to settle into the satisfaction of belonging like the others. These people are great at forming herds, but not very good at staying in them. They soon need a fresh shot of thrill.

Conversely, there must also be people with the natural ability to project charisma. We’ve all known them. They ruled our high schools and they continue to rule our workplaces, our dinner parties, our churches, and our politics. Some have it to such a degree that they can become overnight leaders of mass movements. But if we look at history, many of these leaders have not turned out to be particularly good leaders in the long run. They often become more blinded by and dependent upon their charm than their followers are. And eventually, reality trumps charm because there are some things that cannot be charmed away or into line. When that happens, we sometimes need people who will stay the course and continue to entrust themselves to the group, and sometimes we need people who will jump ship easily and form new – and hopefully better – groups drawn together by new leadership. It’s easy to see why we need these differently neurological inclinations to thrive as a social species.

outlier |ˈoutˌlīər|nouna person or thing situated away or detached from the main body or system : less accessible islands and outliers.• a person or thing excluded from a group; an outsider.• Geology a younger rock formation isolated among older rocks.• Statistics a data point on a graph or in a set of results that is very much bigger or smaller than the next nearest data point.

But is there a place for outliers whose neurobiology is resistant to charisma, and who will never really feel the security and comfort others do from belonging to a group and entrusting themselves to its leader? I think there is. And I think that, maybe, I have a place as one of them. But whether or not I am, I would guess that these people also serve the greater social good. Followers and leaders need Socratic gadflies to sting them individually and collectively into thinking differently sometimes; kings and peoples need a prophet to wander in from the wilderness every once in a while and ask, “What the hell is going on here?” And every group needs people who are in attendance but on the outside of the bubble to keep their eyes, ears, and minds open for new opportunities and possible trouble. Like designated drivers, we need such people around, even if they are sometimes a drag on the party. They may be the way that our group brain stays partially vigilant while the rest of it surrenders control to the common good.

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