The Neurology of the Charismatic Aura
The importance of mythology for the experience of charisma can seem like a circular argument. In order for people to experience a leader as charismatic, the proposition goes, they need to believe in the existence of charismatic leaders. Well, er, yes.
The business management literature has gussied this up a little with the term ‘Romance of Leadership Disposition’, which is basically a measure of how much people are inclined to believe in the existence of and need for inspirational leaders. People with the disposition are more likely to find leaders charismatic, whilst those without it are the ones who cross their arms and sniff mistrustingly.
A study published last year, though, gives us some fascinating insights into what’s going on in people’s brains when these observed social behaviours are going on. A research team from Denmark undertook fMRI scans of devout Christians and non-believers while they listened to recordings of intercessionary prayers. The listeners were told that some of the speakers were non-believers, some were Christian, and some were Christians known for their healing powers, whereas in fact all were ‘ordinary’ Christians, and which prayer was given which label was randomised.
(The Christian/non-Christian distinction here is only relevant for the reliability and robustness by which it can distinguish those who believe and those who don’t. I.e. it wasn’t the content of either the beliefs or the stimulus material that mattered, but the fact that the study could establish clear relationships between the two.)
Participants were then quizzed about the extent to which they found the speakers charismatic. The Christian listeners rated the speaker known for their power to heal as significantly more charismatic than the ‘ordinary’ Christian speaker, and the non-Christian speaker as the least charismatic. The non-Christian listeners rated all three as much less charismatic, but preserved the relative ranking between the three.
So far, this is looking like an interesting social psychology experiment. The reputation of speakers is affecting their reception in all listeners, but the belief-systems of the listeners are significantly enhancing or damping down the reported experience of charisma. This is interesting in itself.
But when you add in the results of the fMRI scans, it starts to get really interesting. The devout groups of listeners showed significant changes in neural activity depending on their assumptions about the speaker, specifically in the executive and social cognitive functions (that is the bits of brain that deal with critical thought, decision-making and interpersonal relationships). There was a noticeable increase of activity when listening to the purported non-Christian speaker, and a much bigger deactivation when listening to the Christian supposedly known for healing powers. The secular group didn’t show these contrasts.
The authors draw a parallel with the neural processes going on in hypnosis, where the subject deactivates their executive function, and effectively hands it over to the hypnotist. They also note a direct correlation between how much the executive function was deactivated, and how charismatic the listeners reported finding the speakers. (They also note, though that they can’t conclude from this experiment whether there is a causal or parallel relationship going on here.)
So this gives a very clear picture of what’s going on when some people fall into hero-worship mode, finding a particular person incredibly charismatic, while other people find that, if anything, their hackles are raised. ‘I don’t know what people see in him,’ the people whose executive functions are on over-drive say, ‘He seems so phoney and smarmy.’ Those people whose belief systems and prior experience dispose them to believe in the charismatic person’s special powers will hand over their critical faculties, and those people who don’t share those beliefs are liable to mistrust the leader all the more for seeing the effect they have on believers.
And this is why we need a mythology. For all the charisma self-help literature’s focus on first impressions, the magical aura of charisma is mostly built through the interaction of culturally-shared beliefs and reputation.