Quick Thinkers Are Smooth Talkers: Mental Speed Facilitates Charisma

Hello faithful readers and devoted fans of our psychological expertise. We give you our latest tasty morsel of social psychology news, we know you’ve all been waiting for it. Get it while it’s hot:

Everyone knows that one person who is an extremely smooth talker. The guy or gal who — let’s face it — is the quickest to make the joke at social gatherings, or is unimaginably instinctual in their responses. Hell, sometimes I think they’ve planned their responses ahead of time, like they have some sort of inhuman superpower. The common perception is that these people are smart, which allows them to have such dominating responses over a multitude of social situations.

All envy aside, the results of one recent study set out to find a connection between quick wit and general intelligence, and the results may just blow your mind. In 2015, Hippel, Ronay, Baker, Kjelsaas, and Murphy conducted two psychological experiments to test the relationship between emotional intelligence and general intelligence. In Study 1, a group of 199 individuals (105 women, 94 men) were put through a series of tests to measure their intelligence, mental speed, friend-reported social skills/charisma, and personality. Study 2 was very similar: 218 participants (114 women, 104 men) conducted the same tests as those in Study 1, but additional more detailed information was collected regarding their mental speed and social skills as well as a series of tests that targeted “individual differences”, including self-confidence and self-efficacy, narcissism and a few others.  

As it turns out, mental quickness correlated positively with emotional intelligence. What this says is that those who possess the ability to answer questions relatively quickly are likely to be those who always seem to have quick, almost instantaneous responses that paradoxically seem to be well thought-out. However, the second conclusion the studies drew is a bit more intriguing — the data indicated charismatic tendencies were independent of general IQ. This means that people’s true intelligence, meaning their capabilities and accurate potential, cannot simply be drawn from a normal face-to-face interaction.

The well-known correlation between emotional intelligence and general intelligence is a myth. So what? The quick-witted guy at the party should get slightly less credit for being intelligent? Well, interestingly enough personal interactions, especially first impressions, have a seemingly large impact on people’s lives. Take interviews as an example: most institutions or companies use someone’s confidence, responses, and overall demeanor to judge their potential future success. And interviews may become less common as the results of this study become more well-known, placing more emphasis on other measures of intelligence like grade point average or IQ.

While this study provides a wonderfully intriguing and elegantly simplistic evaluation of the connection between charisma and various states of mental processing in individuals, it is not without its flaws, nor should it escape critique. First and foremost, we cannot get too carried away yet. Just because someone has a fast mental processing rate does mean that they are charismatic. This is a case of correlation, not causation. So sorry to break it to all you quick-witted nerds out there, but your abilities to charm may depend on more than just the speed at which you can “name a precious gem.” Before we can jump to conclusions, more research is required to pinpoint how exactly mental speed facilitates charisma. This is a much more complex question that likely requires delving into the biological side of psychology, something these researchers may not be prepared for. Might this research end here? Might the world be content believing that their quiz-bowl skills give them a leg-up in the dating world? Time will tell.

Additionally, it is always important to evaluate the methods of a study. Of particular interest to me is that the paper does not include a scale for the friend-evaluations. A scale of 1 to 3 versus 1 to 10, 1 to 100, (you get the picture) has potentially meaningful differences. For example, if a friend reported someone as a 3 on the 1 to 3 scale, does that translate to a 10 on the 1 to 10 scale, or perhaps a 7 instead? It is easy to see that a correlation between mental speed and charisma on such a scale is subject to error due to a lack of variation in the charisma ratings.

Finally, the context of this study is incredibly important when attempting to blanket these results across all humans. This study took place at a college in Queensland, hardly the epitome of diverse. Could this connection dissolve at different ages, in different cultures? The western world and eastern worlds are often at odds on standards of social interactions and guiding principles; is it so crazy to think that these results may be more localized within the greater social world?

I think it’s time I step back from this pessimism…er…realism before I ruin everyone’s fun. The take home message is that in social interactions, whats more attractive than having the best answer is having the fastest good answer. So get out there people, answer quickly but mindfully and you may just yet gain some charisma and subsequently, some friends, I’m sure you could use some, after all, you are reading a blog written by two college students for an assignment. Until next week…

von Hippel, W., Ronay, R., Baker, E., Kjelsaas, K., & Murphy, S. C. (2015). Quick Thinkers Are Smooth Talkers: Mental Speed Facilitates Charisma. Psychological Science.

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