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New study shows how charisma affects politicians’ ability to influence public behavior

Research on governors’ COVID-19 messaging points to relationship between inspirational communication, lives saved, ASU professor says

A person in a suit stands at a podium in front of an audience.

The ASU study found that charisma worked to win over public opinion when governors spoke to rally the public during the pandemic. Photo by iStock

July 13, 2023

A new study of U.S. governors’ speeches during the COVID-19 pandemic reveals significant ways charismatic politicians can motivate constituents.

The research team, headed by an Arizona State University associate professor of public affairs, found that charisma worked to win over public opinion when governors spoke to rally the public during the pandemic. They also determined that, in some cases, increasing the governors’ “charisma signaling” likely would have saved thousands more lives by convincing more people to stay home while the virus was spreading.

In the study, published in The Leadership Quarterly, Associate Professor Ulrich Jensen and a research team of Swiss academics examined charisma’s influence on stay-at-home messaging delivered during a four-month period at the beginning of the pandemic.

Researchers coded for levels of charisma in 350 speeches from all 50 U.S. governors delivered between February and May 2020, Jensen said. Then they studied variations in behavior, finding that the more charisma a governor signaled, the more people followed the politician’s request for them to remain at home.

The study found that by employing moderately more charismatic language in their deliveries, governors could have convinced more people to engage in safer behaviors, thus saving more lives during the study period, said Jensen, who works in the School of Public AffairsCenter for Organization Research and Design.

“People respond not only with their minds but with their hearts,” Jensen said. “In times of crisis and beyond, people don’t respond to policies like robots. It matters how policies are communicated.”

The impacts of charisma on voter behavior go all the way back to ancient Greece and Rome. Great orators such as Demosthenes and Cicero became immensely popular by inspiring listeners with spellbinding stem-winders and polemics.

John F. Kennedy, president, United States, Rice University, 1962, moon, unsplash

President John F. Kennedy speaks in 1962 at Rice University in Houston. Kennedy was well known for his charismatic speaking style. Photo by History in HD/Unsplash

Charisma may have also contributed to election results in U.S. presidential elections. Political researchers have often viewed John F. Kennedy’s razor-thin victory margin over Richard M. Nixon in 1960 partly as a result of Kennedy’s charm and ease of manner in debates versus Nixon’s guarded, more serious approach.

Many researchers also credit Ronald Reagan's second-term election in 1984 to charisma more than policy.

Direct impact on stay-at-home behavior

Charismatic behavior like that exhibited by some U.S. presidents or governors can be potent and effective in gaining public support, Jensen said.

“The study shows that U.S. governors’ communication during COVID-19 press briefings directly impacted stay-at-home behavior at the onset of the pandemic,” he said. “If governors used inspirational or charismatic language, more people stayed home the following day. The effect of charismatic language is large, and we estimate governors could have helped save thousands of lives if they used it more.”

The researchers used a computer algorithm to detect to what extent governors’ speeches used words and speech patterns indicative of communications tactics known to engender charisma. These communication tactics include, for example, use of moral conviction (cued by words such as “should,” “must” and “belief”) to instill values, and metaphors or analogies (cued by words such as “like”) to help frame the message.

Ronald Reagan, president, United States, Library of Congress photo, charisma

President Ronald Reagan was known for a warm, folksy style of speaking that attracted audiences. Photo credit: Library of Congress/Unsplash

Jensen said that contrary to commonly held views, charisma is not some divine trait, “a god-like gift for the lucky few.” Rather, it can be boiled down to specific communication tactics that leaders can learn and use.

“And when they do, it’s like sending their message with Gorilla Glue on the backside. It sticks,” Jensen said. “But it’s more than that: It’s about ... making one’s convictions clear and relatable through metaphors, stories and analogies. These help people understand and identify with the message.”

According to the study’s conclusions, “political leaders should consider additional soft-power levers like charisma — which can be learned — to complement policy interventions for pandemics or other public health crises, especially with certain populations who may need a nudge.”

The study also found that Republican governors with a particularly high charisma-signaling score impacted the outcome of stay-at-home behavior more than Democratic ones in comparable situations.

Read on to learn more about Jensen and his colleagues’ research on the power of charisma in politics.

Note: Answers may have been edited lightly for length and clarity.

Question: Can charisma be learned? How much control can a politician have in raising their score on the charisma meter to achieve the positive results your study suggests?

Answer: Popular belief might say that charisma is something for the lucky few, something you’re either born with or not. That’s not true. In other studies, we show that government leaders can become more charismatic simply by training in the charismatic communication behaviors we also looked at in this study. So, governors can learn charisma. But they must make the investments, for instance, through training or hiring speech writers who master these tactics.

Q: Voters often say that positions on the issues are the most important consideration in choosing a candidate. How does what you’ve learned in this study confirm that non-issues-oriented factors such as likeability and even charm can persuade voters?

A: Issues are important. Charisma is nothing without substance. But issues or policies aren’t neutral. People need to identify with the message, and that’s what charisma can help with. It’s like turbocharging your delivery by connecting people’s feelings and emotions to the issue. We see that in our study, too, that charisma worked perhaps the best among people who might have been initially more skeptical of COVID-19 and mitigation behaviors.

Q: What are the study’s main takeaways for any elected officeholder, someone wanting to become one, or for a voter regarding charisma’s impact on leadership?

A: The main takeaway for current or aspiring elected officials is simple: Charisma is a powerful tool in your toolbox, one that any politicians should master. It can help you connect with your constituencies, rally people behind policies and help generate commitment to issues, even contentious ones like staying at home. But the lessons are also for the broader public: Voters can use this when they listen to and evaluate leaders and candidates, especially as we are gearing up for the next presidential race.

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