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A Quick Wit and a Silver Tongue

Researchers link mental speed and charisma in a new study.
A decidedly clever dog. (Photo: Sergii Votit/Shutterstock)

A decidedly clever dog. (Photo: Sergii Votit/Shutterstock)

Speedy thinking can get you out of sticky situations, help you win political debates, and perhaps even score you points on the social scene. Being able to process information faster than others has some other social benefits, too, according to a recent report: Quick thinkers, it turns out, are also more charismatic than the rest of us—a result politicians and other leaders might do well to be mindful of.

"Mental speed is important in most conceptualizations of general intelligence, but it also has the potential to play a role in social intelligence," a team of psychologists led by William von Hippel and Richard Ronay write in Psychological Science. To be sure, mental speed is not the only factor determining social intelligence or charisma—indeed, the former is a complicated, tough-to-measure concept, and the latter is even more so.

A quick thinker might be able to navigate complicated social situations with aplomb and wit.

On the other hand, there's plenty of reason to suspect quick thinking has something to do with charisma and sociability: "For example," the researchers write, "mental speed allows people to judge situational demands rapidly, consider a wide repertoire of responses ... and make time sensitive humorous associations." In other words, a quick thinker might be able to navigate complicated social situations with aplomb and wit.

The psychologists tested that hypothesis on 199 undergraduate students, all of whom took a general intelligence test and, as a measure of their mental quickness, answered 30 easy trivia questions—"name a precious gem," for example—as fast as they could. In addition, each participant had been recruited as part of a group of friends, who rated each other's charisma and social skills, including how funny a friend was and how good he or she was at handling conflict.

As they expected, the team found that the faster someone finished the trivia questions, the more likely their friends were to rate them as charismatic. General intelligence and personality traits like openness, agreeableness, and extraversion also played a role, though not as clear a role as mental speed, the researchers write. Surprisingly, mental speed wasn't a reliable predictor of more concrete social skills, such as being good at interpreting other people's feelings. A second experiment with 218 students confirmed the results of the first experiment.

"It remains a question for future research exactly how mental speed facilitates charismatic behavior," the team writes, "but access to a wider repertoire of social responses within an appropriate [amount of time] would seem to be a likely candidate."

That's something political and business leaders might want to take note of. "Given the centrality of charisma in leadership effectiveness and the fact that mental speed played a clearer role in charisma than was played by either intelligence or personality," the researchers write, "the current research suggests that mental speed may well be an important and understudied component of interpersonal effectiveness."


Quick Studies is an award-winning series that sheds light on new research and discoveries that change the way we look at the world.