American Association for Physician Leadership

Motivations and Thinking Style

Fast Thinkers Are More Charismatic

Nicole Torres

February 16, 2024


William von Hippel of the University of Queensland and a team of researchers recruited dozens of small groups of friends for a study. They gave participants intelligence and personality tests and then asked each subject to answer 30 common-knowledge questions as rapidly as possible.

The Research: William von Hippel of the University of Queensland and a team of researchers recruited dozens of small groups of friends for a study. They gave participants intelligence and personality tests and then asked each subject to answer 30 common-knowledge questions—such as “What’s the name of a precious gem?”—as rapidly as possible. Participants also rated their friends’ charisma and social skills. The researchers found that individuals who answered the questions more quickly were perceived to be more charismatic—regardless of their IQ, knowledge, or personality.

The Challenge: Does the speed at which you think predict how appealing people will find you? Is charisma nothing more than a quick brain? Professor von Hippel, defend your research.

Von Hippel: We were expecting to see that fast thinkers were charismatic, and we did. I think we all sense that charismatic people tend to be quick on their feet. They say things that you find compelling but that you don’t expect. They come back with an entertaining answer or a surprising association, and you never quite know what will happen next. They’re interesting. It’s sort of like humor. You say something, and then I make a joke that connects it to an idea you hadn’t thought of. If I can do that quickly, it makes all the difference. What surprised us, however, was that mental speed didn’t seem to correlate to social skills overall. Just to charisma.

HBR: How fast did you have to be to be considered a quick wit?

The fast thinkers in our study could name a precious gem in 400 milliseconds; the slow ones took more than 900 milliseconds.

That seems like a tiny difference.

Nearly everyone can respond to an easy question or pattern-matching task in less than a second. Though the differences may be small here, your mental speed on a really simple task can speak to what it might be on a much more complicated task. For example, if you say, “I should probably let you know I’m gay,” I might be surprised because I thought you were straight. I have to be able to respond quickly, because if I take too long—even if I don’t care or I feel positive—you might misinterpret that pause. Social pressure requires quick responses. When my brother told my parents he was getting married, they thought he was too young, and there was this long pause on the phone before they said congratulations. You can’t undo that. Everybody knows what it means when nothing comes out of your mouth for a second and a half.

But aren’t those situations more about social interaction than about recalling facts?

Yes, but we think that mental speed might have evolved partly as a way for us to impress each other. It doesn’t seem as if our brain got to be as big as it is just so we could deal with facts. Many people have argued that our brain evolved to deal with a complex social environment. Therefore, it’s probably the case that many of the mental abilities we use to solve abstract problems didn’t actually evolve for that purpose. Rather, they evolved so that we could deal with each other more effectively.

Aren’t smart people just more charismatic in general? Wouldn’t IQ predict charisma too?

Mental speed is one of the most reliable predictors of actual IQ, so we expected IQ would be an important predictor of charisma—that how much you know would affect how quickly you made associations. But it’s important to note that mental speed is not the same thing as IQ; some smart people are pretty slow and some fast people aren’t too sharp. As it turned out, IQ itself wasn’t predictive of charisma once we controlled for speed. Your ability to respond quickly was much more important for charisma than your IQ was.

What if someone gave the wrong answers?

It didn’t matter. And people hardly ever got them wrong. “Name a precious gem” is pretty easy. We didn’t want to test how smart they were; we wanted to see how fast they were.

I thought of the last question in about 200 milliseconds.

Pretty smooth, right? Slick, but I’d be more impressed if you thought of the answer that fast!

It seems as if a fast brain would help with other social skills, too. But you didn’t find that.

We ran the study twice because we also expected quick thinking would predict general social skills, like how comfortable people were in various social settings, how good they were at making others feel better, and so on. It didn’t predict that at all in the first study. And even when we used a slightly larger version of the social skills scale in a second study, it still didn’t predict it. I don’t know why. In the first study the charisma scale had three questions: How charismatic are they? How quick-witted are they? How funny are they? The social skills scale asked, How good are they at handling conflict? How comfortable are they in a wide range of social settings? And how good are they at interpreting other people’s feelings? The second study added three more questions about social skills: How good are they at putting people at ease? How socially skilled are they? And do they get along with everybody?

How do you actually define charisma?

Charisma is a bit like pornography—not very easy to describe, but you know it when you see it. From my perspective, you can be charismatic—but also an asshole. For example, Donald Trump is almost entirely devoid of social grace, but he’s charismatic. People find him fascinating; they don’t know what he’s going to say next. Jeb Bush, in contrast, is a snoozer. You not only know what he’s going to say but also know it’s not going to be very interesting. But I’d bet he’s a lot more pleasant at a dinner party or across a negotiation table. I think a lot of our political leaders are very charismatic, but they’re not necessarily socially skilled.

So fast-thinking, smooth-talking managers are actually good for a company even if they lack other social skills?

Charismatic leaders are engaging. They can get companies to change direction, they can get people to believe in them, and they can get people to see things in new ways. While there’s not much people can do to enhance their mental speed, it does tell you something about which people have the capacity to inspire your organization and which don’t. If you want to make big changes, you may want to bring in a charismatic leader.

If I wanted to appear charismatic to convince my boss of something, how could I do that?

Here’s the thing: There’s a bit of risk involved in trying to do that. I think what impresses us about people who are fast is that they’re not just fast, they have quick—what I would call parallel—access to multiple ways of interpreting an idea. The only way to demonstrate that is to respond differently from everybody else and to do so rapidly. But if you do that, you’re taking a risk, because what you say may be stupid or may offend people. There’s a cost. I don’t like to keep using Trump as an example, since there are many charismatic people who are lovely. But there’s a big chance it could backfire.

How can I avoid that?

I think that being charismatic and wrong is a disaster. Being charismatic and right is a good thing.

Copyright 20216 Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation. Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate.

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Nicole Torres

Nicole Torres is a former senior editor at Harvard Business Review.

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