Is There a Biological Basis for Charismatic Leadership?

Research helps explain the special bond we form with charismatic leaders.

Posted Sep 22, 2020

I don’t say women’s rights—I say the constitutional principle of the equal citizenship stature of men and women.” —Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a brilliant legal mind, cultural icon, and feminist leader passed away last week at age 87. For me, the notorious RBG was an exemplar of leadership. It was extraordinary to see how much adoration she received from her followers in recent years.

She was a great inspiration to me personally and to thousands more. Her passing made me think of leadership and the uncanny influence charismatic leaders have.

Charismatic leaders, past and present, have had tremendous effects on the fortunes and fates of individuals and societies across the world. Despite the outstanding impact of charismatic influence, we know very little about its origins. Could there be a connection between attachment and bonding and the impact leaders have on followers at the neurophysiological level?

In a collaboration with Prof. Yair Berson published 2018, we wished to explore the biological circuits that may be at the core of the influence of charismatic leaders. We argued that the powerful relationship that followers form with charismatic leaders, shown to resemble basic human attachment bonds, has biological underpinnings.

Specifically, we claimed that oxytocin, a neuropeptide and hormone, extensively implicated in mammalian attachment bonds, regulates charismatic influence in groups. We chose to focus on oxytocin because we believed theory pointed us to the fact that followers form a strong bond with a charismatic leader, which can resemble a parent-child attachment. Oxytocin plays a major role in those early relationships.

In a double-blind placebo-controlled study, we administered oxytocin to participants in a group task, led by a confederate trained to exhibit charismatic rhetoric. We discovered that oxytocin enhanced positive facial expressions when the confederate used charisma rhetoric, increased mimicry of leaders' gestures, and facilitated the association between perceived charisma and trust in group members.

We concluded that "despite being preliminary, our work provides a new, biological angle to a phenomenon that spurred interest among scholars across disciplines. Our findings address the role of oxytocin in illuminating the path through which effective leaders facilitate
emotional and behavioral contagion among group members."

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg will be sorely missed, perhaps in part, due to the special connection and bond she inspired and the biological circuits this connection sparks. 

References

Gordon, I., & Berson, Y. (2018). Oxytocin modulates charismatic influence in groups. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 147(1), 132–138. https://doi.org/10.1037/xge0000375