When Ronald Riggio, PhD, a psychology professor at Claremont McKenna College, gives a speech on charisma, he likes to test the audience by having them name charismatic figures.

The audience shouts back suggestions: Martin Luther King Jr., John F. Kennedy, James Bond. The responses seldom vary. Satisfied with the audience's responses, he asks of them another seemingly simple task: Define charisma.

"And that's where the problems develop," Riggio says. "If you ask for definitions, things get vague. Some people will say it's a kind of magic. Some say it's being extraverted. Others say it depends on the situation. With so much difference, how do you measure it?"

Welcome to the dilemma of a charisma researcher: Everyone knows what you study, but nobody can tell you what it is. They just know it when they see it. Call it charisma, charm or savoir faire, most of us intuitively understand--though find it harder to articulate--the power some people have to attract, motivate or lead others.

But continued research is helping psychologists work toward a rudimentary understanding of charisma and the traits and situations that make someone charismatic.

Building blocks of charisma

The 19th century sociologist Max Weber first termed charisma as a "gift of grace" that allowed people to captivate others.

Since then, psychologists have attempted to define it more concretely, but to date no generally agreed upon definition exists. That's partly due to the different inventories used to measure charisma. Some, such as the Multifactor Leadership Questionnaire (MLQ), obliquely measure charisma as a subscale of leadership potential. The 45-item MLQ measures, among other items, a leader's inspirational motivation and effectiveness, which hint at charisma.

Another measurement belongs to Riggio, who argues charisma has three components--expressivity, sensitivity and control. His Social Skills Inventory is a 90-item questionnaire that asks participants to rate on a five-point scale how much they agree with statements about their behavior, such as "I am able to liven up a dull party," or "I can easily adjust to being in just about any social situation."

Riggio initially believed the most important factor was emotional expressivity--the ability to convey feelings and inspire others to action--but 30 years of research has taught him there's more to charisma.

"In the late 1970s, I thought a charismatic person was a bubbly, effervescent, Robin Williams type that lit up a room," he says. "But charismatic people are also tactful in social situations. They have the ability to read other people's emotions."

He says this rounded view finds support in research associating charismatic people with six descriptors: emotionally expressive, enthusiastic, eloquent, visionary, self-confident and responsive to others. But possessing all six traits guarantees only charisma potential, Riggio explains: "It's not clear that having all these skills makes you charismatic."

Words may make the person

Even if psychologists have pinpointed some general charisma qualities, it's debatable whether those characteristics are innate, teachable or the product of a situation.

Some evidence supports situations. University of California, Davis, psychology professor Dean Keith Simonton, PhD, author of the book "Why Presidents Succeed" (Yale University Press, 1987), argues that America's successful presidents used language rich in meaning to create charismatic personas.

Words with basic emotions, sensations or visions, such as love, hate, greedy or evil, have a richness that connects with an audience, explains Simonton.

"People don't have rich associations with abstract words like inference, concept or logic," he says. "'I feel your pain' has association, but 'I can relate to your viewpoint' doesn't. The most charismatic presidents reached an emotional connection with people talking not to their brains but to their gut."

The finding indicates that technique plays as much a role as personality. "I do think that charismatic techniques can be taught to a certain extent," he says. "If you tell people what they need to do to feel more confident, some may improve." But no amount of training will help people with no charisma potential, Simonton adds. Or, as Riggio says, "Nothing can turn Al Gore into Bill Clinton."

Along the same lines, situations can bring out a person's hidden charisma, Simonton adds. He contrasted President Bush's frequent malapropisms when first taking office with the president's emotional firmness after 9/11.

Maybe they're born with it?

Then again, researchers investigating perception, judgment and synchrony find that a natural charisma may explain some of their findings.

University of Connecticut psychology professor David A. Kenny, PhD, contends that while charismatic behaviors may not be biological, the processes behind them might be.

He has researched "zero acquaintance," the situation in which people make fairly accurate predictions about the behavior and personality of others they haven't interacted with using photos or initial, seconds-long observation. Kenny has found that people are great at judging another's extraversion, which correlates with leadership and charisma.

Zero acquaintance, he says, may help explain a certain aspect of charisma. A follower's reaction to those charismatic qualities may be an automatic response, suggesting that some people draw in others simply by being physically attractive or confident.

Other similar work deals with "thin slices" of behavior--when people make evaluations about another person after interacting with them for a few brief moments. In a 1992 study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (Vol. 64, No. 3), Nalini Ambady, PhD, of Tufts University, and Robert Rosenthal, PhD, of the University of California, Riverside, found that after the first 30 seconds of the first class, students' evaluations of a teacher were similar to students who rated the teacher after the entire semester.

The finding suggests our actions can speak louder than our words, Kenny says. "Evidently, personality is somehow reflected in our appearance, our nonverbal behavior and how we express ourselves," he says. "Physical appearance plays a role, sending signals to other people, which affects their way of behaving."

Frank Bernieri, PhD, an Oregon State University psychology professor, studies these physical signals and believes that synchrony is connected to charisma.

He has found in previous research that people subconsciously switch their postures to match that of someone they are talking to. He believes this ability to connect with others on a grand scale--as when people line dance or do the wave at a football game--holds a key to charisma.

"Mass synchrony creates a positive, enjoyable experience," he says. "When that kind of synchrony occurs with a single person, you think they are charismatic." Bernieri has found that high-rapport interactions have high synchrony and expressivity.

But that's not enough, he says: "It's all about timing, repetition and rhythmic cadence, raising amplitude at key points. This is a craft, and you have to play the crowd like improvisational jazz. The charismatic individual knows the gestures but also has the innate ability to play any given audience."

Some people, he argues, in the timing of their breaths, gestures and cadence of their speech, can enrapt listeners into synchrony, where they "breathe and sway in tune with the speaker."

The physical idea of charisma finds support in other research as well: Other research finds people who shift posture more often and use more smiles, gestures and eyebrow raises appear more charismatic. Still other work looks at the "chameleon effect," which shows that training people to mimic other people's mannerisms can be surprisingly simple--and it does encourage people to like the mimicker.

Bernieri mentions the unpublished master's thesis of his former graduate student, Neha Gada, who found synchrony can't be faked. In the study, interviewers met with 96 participants. Gada instructed 51 participants to mimic an interviewer's physical motions and gestures but gave 45 other participants no instruction.

Interviewers, blind to the participants' instructions, intuitively liked participants who naturally mimicked them without instruction to do so. However, they remained neutral to those who intentionally mimicked interviewers.

"This is akin to teaching someone to slam their fist on the table to make a point," Bernieri says. "It's not the same as when it happens naturally, and charismatic people do it naturally."

Indeed, much research on charisma relates to emotional intelligence research and hints that charismatic people have strong emotional and social intelligence. That is, they better empathize and connect with others.

As they pick away at charisma's mysteries, researchers point out that their work can only help the field. More people now acknowledge charisma as more than pop psychology, Riggio says.

"Research has broken down different parts of charismatic leadership, and now people acknowledge charisma's role in leadership," he says. "Meanwhile, I've received lots of interest from researchers."

After all, most people find charisma interesting because they know it when they see it. "If a teacher's performance in a semester-long course is predicted within the first 30 seconds, what in that short time possibly can affect judgment so much? It's certainly not their intelligence or organizational skills," Bernieri says. "Nobody has shown it explicitly, yet what else could it be but charisma?"

Further Reading

  • Bernieri, F., Gillis, J.S., Davis, J.M., & Grahe, J.E. (1996). Dyad rapport and the accuracy of its judgment across situations: A lens model analysis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 71(1), 110–129.

  • Emrich, C.G., Brower, H.H., Feldman, J.M., & Garland, H. (2001). Images in words: Presidential rhetoric, charisma and greatness. Administrative Science Quarterly, 46(3), 527–557.

  • Riggio, R.E. (1998). Charisma. In H.S. Friedman (Ed.), Encyclopedia of mental health (pp. 387–396). San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

  • Riggio, R.E. (2004). Charisma. In Encyclopedia of leadership (Vol. 1, pp. 158–162). Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

  • Sankowsky, D. (1995). The charismatic leader as narcissist: Understanding the abuse of power. Organizational Dynamics, 23(4), 57–71.

  • Simonton, D.K. (1988). Presidential style: Personality, biography, and performance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 55(6), 928–936.

  • Yorges, S.L., Weiss, H.M., & Strickland, O.J. (1999). The effects of leader outcomes on influence, attributions and perceptions of charisma. Journal of Applied Psychology, 84(3), 428–436.