Barack Obama, Margaret Thatcher, Nelson Mandela, Anita Roddick, Bill Clinton, Oprah Winfrey, Hilary Clinton, Tony Blair, Mother Teresa, Karren Brady, Carla Bruni Sarkozy, Diana Princess of Wales – and many more great and good – have all been described as charismatic: having charm, magnetism and extraordinary persuasive powers.
And it is the words “great and good” that matter most. You can be great and have charisma; but not all charismatic people are also good. Think of the undeniably charismatic Adolf Hitler.
New research from Denmark shows that charismatic people have a subtle effect on others, which is what helps them win hearts and minds. In a neuro-scientific study conducted by Aarhus University, people in two groups (one of devoted Christians who believed in healing through prayer, and one non-religious who did not believe in that possibility) were asked to listen to three speakers. The speakers were described as a Christian, a non-Christian and a Christian known for his healing powers. Participants were told which they were listening to, in turn. In reality, all three were ordinary Christians.
Leave aside the fact that the study involved Christians. Their faith is not relevant; it is useful as it provides a neat example of how people behave.
Participants’ brains were studied for their reactions to the speakers as the speakers spoke. Afterwards, they were asked to rate each speaker’s charisma. Devoted Christians gave the Christian known for his healing powers a much higher charisma rating. Among non-Christians, there was only a slight difference in their charisma ratings for that speaker.
The brain analysis revealed that the people who rated the Christian with healing powers most highly had deactivated a part of their brain, switching off their scepticism and making them more susceptible to influence. This is a general reaction when with people we trust – we do it with doctors, for example – but it is boosted when we are in the presence of people with presence: we lower our guard, become more trusting, believe more than disbelieve. The study noted that this is also what happens to the brain during hypnosis, which explains why people expect high levels of trust from hypnotherapists.
People who abuse their charisma – leaders of cults, for example – are often described as having a hold over people. And they do because of the way our brains react to their extraordinary persuasive powers. But, used responsibly, charisma is a valuable tool. It can get you noticed, leading to greater success, and it can help you win friends and influence people. And that all adds up to improved self-esteem and self-belief.
Lucky you if you were born with charisma. If you weren’t, you can acquire it. And if you’ve been drawn towards someone who has abused their charisma, hypnotherapy can help you recover.