Quick thinking seems to be the main trait that charismatic people have in common, according to a new study published in Psychological Science.
The findings show that people who are able to respond more quickly to general knowledge questions and visual tasks were perceived as more charismatic by their friends, independently of IQ and other personality traits.
“Our findings show that social intelligence is more than just knowing the right thing to do,” said psychological scientist Dr. William von Hippel of the University of Queensland in Australia. “Social intelligence also requires an ability to execute, and the quickness of our mind is an important component of that ability.”
For the study, the researchers set out to determine the specific personality traits behind charismatic charm.
“We decided to take a slightly different approach to the problem by trying to get a handle on what enables charisma,” von Hippel said. “When we looked at charismatic leaders, musicians, and other public figures, one thing that stood out is that they are quick on their feet.”
To determine whether mental speed might contribute to charisma, the researchers conducted two studies involving a total of 417 participants. The subjects completed established measures of intelligence and personality.
To gauge charisma, the researchers asked friends of the participants to rate how “charismatic,” “funny,” and “quick-witted” they were. To measure mental speed, participants were given 30 common-knowledge questions (e.g., “Name a precious gem”) and were asked to answer as quickly as possible.
In the second study, the subjects completed timed tasks that required them to locate a dot or identify a pattern as quickly as possible.
The findings revealed that those who were faster on the mental speed tasks were perceived as more charismatic by their friends. This link remained after other factors, such as general intelligence and personality, were taken into account.
“Although we expected mental speed to predict charisma, we thought that it would be less important than IQ,” says von Hippel. “Instead, we found that how smart people were was less important than how quick they were. So knowing the right answer to a tough question appears to be less important than being able to consider a large number of social responses in a brief window of time.”
The researchers speculate that mental speed may also make it easier to quickly mask an inappropriate reaction and make humorous associations on the spot.
Furthermore, mental speed did not predict other social skills, such as handling conflict well or interpreting others’ feelings.
The findings suggest that social intelligence depends on more than knowing specific social rules or having certain social abilities, such as being able to interpret others’ facial expressions. While social knowledge and face reading are most certainly important traits of social intelligence, this research shows that general mental properties, like mental speed, play a surprisingly vital role.