Is there a biological basis for charismatic leadership?

I’m not saying women’s rights — I’m saying the constitutional principle of equal citizenship status for men and women.—Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a brilliant jurist, cultural icon and feminist leader, died last week at the age of 87. For me, the famous RBG was an example of leadership. It was extraordinary to see how much worship she has received from her followers in recent years.

She has been a great inspiration to me personally and to thousands of others. His passing reminded me of leadership and the strange influence of charismatic leaders.

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

In a collaboration with Prof. Yair Berson published in 2018, we wanted to explore the biological circuits that may be at the heart of the influence of charismatic leaders. We have argued that the powerful relationship that followers form with charismatic leaders, which resemble fundamental human attachment bonds, has biological foundations.

Specifically, we asserted that oxytocin, a neuropeptide and hormone, widely involved in mammalian attachment bonds, regulates charismatic influence in groups. We chose to focus on oxytocin because we thought the theory told us that followers form a strong bond with a charismatic leader, which can resemble a parent-child attachment. Oxytocin plays a major role in these early relationships.

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

We concluded that “although preliminary, our work offers a new biological angle to a phenomenon that has aroused the interest of researchers from all disciplines. Our findings focus on the role of oxytocin in informing the path by which effective leaders
emotional and behavioral contagion among group members.

Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg will be sadly missed, perhaps in part, because of the special connection and bond she inspired and the biological circuits that connection elicits.

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