John Antonakis is a professor of organizational behavior at the Faculty of Business and Economics of the University of Lausanne. Below is the full transcript of John’s TEDx Talk titled ‘Let’s Face It: Charisma Matters’ at TEDxLausanne conference.
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John Antonakis – Professor of organizational behavior
Take a look at this guy. And by show of hands, and everyone please participate, who thinks he wanted to be an economist when he grew up? A lawyer? OK. One or two. A heavy metal bassist? OK. Yeah. We think a face tells a lot. Does it? It’s not Bon Jovi in the picture. I am. A misguided, indiscreet, 17 year old who initially wanted to be an economist.
But now I study psychology. I also study faces, you’ll see why in a minute, and, charisma. I grew up in South Africa which cultivated my interest in charisma. I saw my dad as a community leader running for about a dozen elections and winning most of them. I saw my mum managing her shop and getting the most out of her staff. I saw South Africa transition peacefully from apartheid to democracy mostly because of one great leader. Nelson Mandela.
So, I have often wondered: What is charisma? Can it be measured? Can it be developed? I became a professor in the Faculty of Business and Economics at the University of Lausanne. But at times, I have felt like a particle physicist studying the Higgs field. Charisma is hard to define, hard to measure, but its effects are evident to see. Like the Higgs field charisma gives mass, gravitas, not to particles, but to social movements.
Just when I thought I was beginning to make a bit of progress, in 2005 my world was turned upside down. A study published in the journal Science by Alex Todorov’s lab at Princeton University, showed that naive subjects were able to predict the results of congressional elections merely by rating the faces of the winner and runner up. What? I thought when I heard it. Impossible! Only in America! Would this work in Europe?
So you can better understand what they did, take a look at these two guys. By show of hands, who of the two seems more competent? More intelligent? More leader-like? Who thinks the guy on the right? OK. A couple of hands there. The guy on the left? OK. Evident majority and the majority got it right.
Now, you don’t know them. These two guys ran for the Wisconsin senate seat. On the right, is Timothy Michels, a Republican. On the left is Russell Feingold, a Democrat, who actually went on to win. Whether a pro- or anti- whatever, pro-gun, anti-gun, pro-God, anti-God, pro-gay, anti-gay — in a couple of seconds, a room of a couple of hundred people predicted the voting outcomes of a couple of million who had a lot more information than you did.
Is there something in politician’s faces that signals their competence, or do we carry some evolutionary baggage that biases our judgement towards more beautiful, more symmetric and healthy looking faces? I repeated the experiments here. Surprisingly, Swiss subjects were able to predict the results of French parliamentary run-off elections.
To entertain the evolutionary argument I re-ran the experiments with young, very young children from 5 to 13 years. Now, such young children don’t know competence, intelligence or leadership, but they do know what a boat captain is. So we asked them to play a boat game and they had to select the boat captain from among the pairs of faces of the French elections. The kids were as accurate as the adults. A 71% hit rate at the individual level, and 85% hit rate when we averaged the results. A kid of 5 or 65 “voted” in the same way.
Come, let’s try it here with some election races from my experiments. Who thinks the guy on the right would make a better boat captain? Evident majority. I don’t even have to go to the left. Let’s try the next one. Who says the guy on the right? OK, 2 or 3 hands. The guy on the left? OK you guys are doing amazing!
Two more to go. This is a test to see how normal you are. OK, don’t laugh! They haven’t chosen their faces, OK. Who says the guy on the right? OK, hardly anyone. The guy on the left? All right, evident majority.
Last pair. Who says the lady on the right? OK, majority already. Fantastic! Well done. You guys did excellent. 5 out of 5. You are normal, just like the 5 five year olds! Give yourselves a round of applause. Come on. Yeah, yeah you passed the test.
That’s how I felt when I actually published these results in the journal Science. I was rocking. I was the man. On top of the world. But, in private, faced, yeah, faced with this result, I wondered, what am I suppose to teach? What am I supposed to teach if one’s ability to succeed as a leader depends on one’s face? How could I justify my professorship? Should I change career and become a plastic surgeon?