Tracing charisma with avatars
Are mainly people of high status perceived as being charismatic? And what does this mean for people with lower status? An interdisciplinary research project at the University of Konstanz focuses on the charisma of politicians from socially marginalized backgrounds.
This group – women, for example, or people with a different social or ethnic background compared to the majority society – is still underrepresented in politics, according to several studies. "Do perceptions of charisma vary depending on people’s social status?" asks sociolinguist Judit Vári, the coordinator of the project. The researchers want to discover both, conscious charisma attributions and subconscious ones by using stimuli including only voices, only images, or both combined.
Studies have shown that physical appearance generally plays a major role in the perception of charisma. As the project team aims to identify individual pieces of the puzzle, they do not use real people in the experiments, but avatars designed specifically for this purpose. These avatars do not only look naturalistic, but can also be animated in a naturalistic way. Using avatars helps the researchers to isolate single factors by changing only one characteristic, such as skin colour.
Astonishingly, people can make many inferences from voices, for example the speakers’ ethnic background. Therefore, the researchers test variations of accents and dialects with auditory stimuli. Vári explains: "We are particularly interested in the combination of factors: Are persons still perceived as charismatic when they look different? And even though two persons speak equally fast, equally high or low and use the same words, their charisma may be assessed differently, because some characteristics of the lower status speech can be detected anyway".
Another factor are the listeners themselves as they also impact how charisma traits are perceived, something on which there is still hardly any research. That is why the project team focuses on differences between listeners: Who considers whom to be charismatic and on what does this perception depend?
That is not all: The study runs in Germany and the UK, and the researchers will compare the results. "We expect to see differences between the countries, simply because of the different organisation of the political systems. The perception of political debates is probably different," says Judit Vári
The detailed article about the research project “Perceptions of political charisma in low-status speakers” which is funded by the Cluster of Excellence "The Politics of Inequality", is freely available (in German) in the magazine uni'kon of the University of Konstanz (uni'kon #77 from p. 18): in the e-reader and in the PDF version.