Charisma, Quick Wit, and Humor

Charisma is a sense of magnetism you feel toward people—you can’t explain it, but you just want to listen to them and be around them. Most of our leaders and politicians are imbued with the gift of charisma, even if they sometimes are otherwise not qualified.

It’s a hard quantity to define, though in 2018, Tskhay and Zhu in “Charisma in Everyday Life: Conceptualization and Validation of the General Charisma Inventory” defined what’s called the General Charisma Inventory (GCI). They identified a collection of six traits that were generally present in people deemed “charismatic.” The factors are as follows:
• has a presence in a room
• has the ability to influence people
• knows how to lead a group
• makes people feel comfortable
• smiles at people often
• can get along with anyone

It is clear that the general trait of charisma is to have a large, positive impact on the people around you. Of course, just reading off that list of traits isn’t helpful for our quest for likability because most of them don’t tell us what to actually do.

Thus, we come to a 2015 study by William von Hippel called “Quick Thinkers Are Smooth Talkers: Mental Speed Facilitates Charisma,” which provides a clear and instructive lesson that will make an impact on how others perceive you. As you might gather from the name of the study, his discovery was that speed of thought and dialogue was more related to people’s ratings of charisma than many other traits, including being correct or accurate. In fact, if you were to prioritize one aspect of interaction, quickness would be highest rated.

The researchers asked test participants to rate how funny and charismatic their friends were depending on how they performed on a series of tests. Friends of the participants were also present and observing the tests. In the first test, participants were asked to answer trivia questions given out in rapid succession. Afterward, the participants’ friends were asked to rate their friends who actually took the tests.

Conventionally, you would assume that the friends of the participant would rate the participant more charismatic and funny based on how they conducted themselves and the presence they had in the room while they were taking the test. After all, we established that charisma is about some positive impact on the surrounding people. Maybe, like with the General Charisma Inventory, the participant smiled at everyone, got along with the researchers, and made people laugh. Isn’t this our first indication of charisma?

If not, perhaps they rated them on how well they performed on the first test. Intelligence is attractive, and attractiveness is an element of charisma, right? Perhaps humans are less shallow than we would expect, and we rate correctness and accuracy highly.

Instead, neither of those factors mattered whatsoever. It turns out that charisma wasn’t related to a positive impact on surrounding people or accuracy or the appearance of intelligence. What mattered most was how quickly the participants answered—the speed with which they took action. The friends of the participants didn’t necessarily care whether the participant performed the task correctly. All they based their decisions on was speed.

The study concluded that people tend to have a more favorable impression of you depending on how quickly you speak or take a position. It doesn’t really matter whether you are correct, accurate, or maybe even sensible. So to appear more charismatic, it’s better to speak first and loudly, even if you have nothing to say and even if you are speaking gibberish (to a reasonable extent). Slowly and correctly, while it may not be seen as negative, clearly won’t have the overwhelmingly positive effect that acting quickly will have.

People apparently tend to have a natural attraction to others who “think on their feet,” and it is seen as one of the ultimate expressions of someone desirable and charismatic. Of course, this is the same tendency that allows us to fall for people who are smooth talkers and conmen, the consummate used car salesman. If someone appears to have a speedy answer for everything, especially in a confident and assertive manner, then we find it appealing for some reason.

Why might this be? Humans place incredible weight on perception.

Speed is associated with intelligence and social acumen. Think about how we perceive people who are slow to answer, who make us wait, and need a joke explained more than once. Now contrast that to someone who has snappy and witty comebacks and can rattle off jokes that we can barely keep up with. Indeed, we use speed as a proxy for intelligence and charm, and we tend to become enamored with those who speak quickly and confidently.

We might also value speedier responses because it may seem that they are listening to you more intently and understanding you more quickly, and that is a special type of validation. Finally, perhaps we feel that speed is comfortable because it fits our image of what we think a charismatic person is, as depicted by leaders we have observed, romantic comedies, and the people we see on television.

Overall, whether we deem someone charismatic is more of an emotional reaction than a logical one, so it makes sense that speed dictates it. We are pushed into assumptions based on split-second appraisals, and thankfully we can use this knowledge to our advantage.

Speak first and speak quickly. You can always correct what you said after the fact. What’s important is that you were able to say something quickly when prompted. When you’re talking to people, make it your priority to respond in any way possible. Silences and lulls are your worst enemy. In many cases, the person probably won’t care whether you have the right answer or not; they just want some type of answer or response.

If you’re overly concerned with giving a correct, accurate, or even perfect response, your charisma quotient will drop if it’s done slowly. This is the same approach that will cause a singer to work on a song for two weeks, singing the same line in slightly different ways, while another singer will spend the same time producing eight songs. That’s simply not what matters in likability.

A quick anything is better than a slow, accurate monologue. After all, isn’t that what we see in movies and television shows—flowing banter that is quick like a ping-pong match? You might have to fight your mental programming to not speak in platitudes or speak just to make noise, but you should in pursuit of charisma.

Speak first, and you can always backtrack afterward and correct yourself: “Let me rephrase that” or “Going back to what I said, I have a different approach.”

You can also speak first, think through your thoughts out loud, and find your way as you are speaking: “Well, see, that’s an interesting point. What do I think about it? Good question. Here’s what I think. It might be good, but it could also be bad because…”

What’s important is to create and maintain momentum. Keep that tempo, pace, and rhythm going by filling the silence and thinking quickly to be perceived as charismatic. A thoughtful response in a brief window of time is less important than you’d think, and mental speed is far more valued. Humans are emotional beings, and speed and confidence of presentation are always going to elicit a stronger emotional response than a well-thought-out answer.

An easy way to be quicker is to practice free association. Open any book and blindly put your finger on a page. What word did your finger point to? Now, as quickly as possible, think of five words, things, people, places, concepts, or thoughts the word makes you think of—without filtering. Then repeat the process with another word. The ability to pivot from topic to related topic is the backbone of flowing conversation. Your speed of thought will increase greatly, and you’ll be a verbal ping-pong master when you improve at free association.

The researcher Von Hippel perhaps summed it up best: “Although we expected mental speed to predict charisma, we thought that it would be less important than IQ. Instead, we found that how smart people were was less important than how quick they were.”
What’s So Funny?
In 2001, British psychologist Richard Wiseman conducted a study that earned him a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records. It was not necessarily a scientific study; rather it was an international survey that sought to find the funniest joke in the world. By the end of the project, he had received over 40,000 joke submissions, and they had been judged and rated by over 350,000 people from 70 countries.

This ended up being the top joke:
Two hunters are out in the woods when one of them collapses. He doesn’t seem to be breathing and his eyes are glazed. The other guy whips out his phone and calls the emergency services. He gasps, “My friend is dead! What can I do?” The operator says, “Calm down. I can help. First, let’s make sure he’s dead.” There is a silence. Then a shot is heard. Back on the phone, the guy says, “Okay, now what?”
Whether you enjoyed that joke or not, it gives a glimpse into the underpinnings of humor and what exactly makes us laugh on a basic, psychological level. As it happens, the joke about the two hunters plays on one of the most well-known theories of humor, which we will cover shortly.
Traditionally, there are three theories of humor, and they are all older than you would expect.
The first theory on humor is called the superiority theory of humor and was mentioned as early as Aristotle and Plato in roughly 300 BC. It is finding humor in the misfortune of others and, therefore, our own superiority that we would not fall victim to said misfortune. We laugh at others because we see the differences illustrated between us. This is also related to schadenfreude, which is a German word roughly translating to “enjoying the misfortune of others.” This theory is easy to see in action; you can reliably find it in your local ice-skating rink as you watch people flail about and try to keep themselves upright.
The second theory is known as the relief theory of humor, which states that humor comes as a result of the release of psychological tension. Herbert Spencer in The Physiology of Laughter in 1860 postulated that we are always in a sort of nervous state, and laughter is the constant feeling of relief at feeling safe and having a pleasant outcome. It was later expounded on by Sigmund Freud, who of course saw it through a sexual and unconscious perspective. But on a more daily level, we might see this play out by mistakenly being told that your restaurant bill is double what it should be and then having the error corrected. At first, tension would grow, but upon correcting the bill, you might laugh in a release of tension.
The third theory is what the top joke in the world played on—a sense of surprise and subverted expectations. It is called the incongruity theory, and it states that we find humor in the incongruity, or gap, between our expectations and reality. If we hear X and Y, then we find an incongruity when we actually hear Z instead.
Two of the earliest conceptions of the incongruity theory of humor come from Immanuel Kant’s 1790 book Critique of Judgment and Arthur Schopenhauer’s 1819 book The World as Will and Idea. They argued that humor came from a shock or surprise to the system, even the failure to account for a different line of thought. The greater the incongruity, the more humor we ultimately find. This is perhaps the most common type of humor we might encounter on a daily basis because our lives are fairly unpredictable. Incongruity is also behind most puns, such as calling a fake noodle an “impasta.”
The late comedian Mitch Hedberg was a master of incongruous jokes that led you down a certain path and then somehow flipped you into another result completely. Here are a few illustrative examples from Hedberg and the incongruity theory:
“I used to do drugs. I still do, but I used to, too.”
“I have no problem not listening to The Temptations, which is weird.”
“I haven’t slept for 10 days, because that would be too long.”
“I can read minds. But it’s pointless because I’m illiterate.”
In 2006, Westbury and Shaoul in “Telling the World’s Least Funny Jokes: On the Quantification of Humor as Entropy” sought to quantify the real effects of incongruity in humor. The researchers investigated whether a greater incongruity between expectations and outcomes produced a stronger feeling of humor. Indeed, it was found that non-words that were more unpredictable (and thus incongruous) were routinely rated as funnier and more humorous. It appears that a large part of this theory on humor is to simply be a little bit absurd and imaginative by putting together elements that wouldn’t normally go together.

When we see our expectations foiled, it results in the perception of humor. Just about every incongruous joke can also be classified with the modern term paraprosdokian, which is a combination of the Greek words for “against” and “expectation.” It is a wordplay where the final part of a phrase or sentence is completely unexpected, also occasionally called an anti-climax.

Of course, these aren’t the only three theories on humor. Humor is such a personal experience that they couldn’t hope to be thorough and exhaustive. Richard Wiseman sought to find some universality in humor, and he found a joke that relied upon incongruity. The findings of the next study are perhaps even more universal.