Cazenovia Forum Speaker Talks “Political Charisma”

11 Oct

By: Meghan Fellows

On September 23rd, more than 200 people crowded in to the ballroom at The Hampton Inn for the latest Cazenovia Forum lecture. The turn out for the forum was larger than usual, and with good reason.

With the presidential election quickly approaching, and the first Trump-Clinton debate just days away, the topic was popular and timely.

“Political Charisma, What Gets your Goat?” was the question presented to the audience. The evening’s speaker, Colgate University Professor Carrie Keating, got the audience’s attention with her opening line:

“I am an expert of knowing when people are lying,” Keating said, making the audience chuckle.

As head of the neuroscience program at Colgate, Keating has been studying non-verbal communication, and facial cues for many years.

“Humans convey dominance from facial features. Most of the time, you’re not aware of your own behavior,” she said.

Keating emphasized non-verbal communication has repercussions. Not realizing how you come off to other people can make or break a first impression. That’s way, she said, she “watches the political debates with the mute button on.”

Keating explained the concept of attention hierarchy; someone powerful just has to attract attention. Whether it’s good or bad attention doesn’t matter.

“Attention enables leadership.” Keating said, with the mention of Donald Trump. Trump portrays dominance, but also allows you to get a little close. This is where charisma comes into play. Keating defined it as one part closeness, and one part distance. Most charismatic leaders master this, and politicians hire professionals to help them do the same.

If a major public leader or politician establishes enough dominance, people who follow them will follow every word they say with more emotion than cognition, Keating said. This means that even when hard facts are established, emotion makes followers of the dominant figure resist new information, and discredit it.

“We tend to see what we already believe.” Keating said, describing a study she conducted. She compared information that was true with information that was opinion. Even after being shown actual facts, more people believed the opinion piece, based on prior knowledge from a public figure that had established dominance in their campaign.

Keating then compared the two presidential candidates in terms of social dominance, and how we recognize dominance within them.

“There are actual studies that show that the taller the candidate, the more likely they are to win. Also, most candidates in the White House, have blue eyes,” she said.

Keating said that we equate leadership with power and shrewdness; power is established with a lower voice and bushy eyebrows, and gender.

“There is a risk when a woman crosses into dominance. A woman can seem competent, but not well liked if she tries to take on a more male demeanor. Women tend to be more interdependent than men. They tend to think of other people before themselves.” This can make Hillary Clinton seem weak to some people; like she will not be able to be hardened enough to get anything done. Running for an office in which her only role models are male, Clinton tries to mimic men, when really she just needs to be herself, said Keating.

Keating said Trump is somewhat at an advantage with the way he is handling his campaign. He runs on fear- which makes a vote for him high risk, but possibly high reward.

“People are more likely to take a risk with a strong leader when the world seems to be “in trouble”” Keating says. Trump supporters have this notion that Trump will get things done. They go in with this mindset of “I don’t know what he’s going to do, but he’s going to do SOMETHING.”

Keating left the audience with this thought:

“Voting is driven by emotion. If we can realize that going into the polls, we can practice more mindfulness- being in the moment, and making your decision in the moment.”

The next Cazenovia Forum lecture, on October 14th at the Catherine Cummings Theatre, will feature former political operative Alan Raymond, on how the major parties rig elections.

After that, pollster John Zogby will round out the Forum’s political lineup, sharing his insights on election results on November 11th.


Meghan Fellows is a junior at Utica College majoring in Public Relations and Journalism.

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