The awestruck ef­fect

Popular Science - - TALES FROM THE FIELD - UFFE SCHJØDT, AS­SO­CI­ATE PRO­FES­SOR AT THE IN­TER­ACT­ING MINDS CENTRE, AARHUS UNIVER­SITY as told to Claire Maldarelli

I study so­cial psy­chol­ogy, es­pe­cially the ef­fect that charis­matic re­li­gious lead­ers can have on their fol­low­ers. In one of my group’s stud­ies, we brought in Chris­tians who be­lieve in the heal­ing pow­ers of the di­vin­ity. Us­ing an fMRI ma­chine, which high­lights ac­tive ar­eas of the brain, we saw that when they lis­tened to prayers from heal­ers, ar­eas as­so­ci­ated with rea­son­ing and skep­ti­cism were im­me­di­ately sup­pressed. Non­be­liev­ers didn’t have the same ap­par­ent loss of ra­tio­nal thought.

We all ex­pe­ri­ence ver­sions of that. Many bosses ex­ert this kind of charisma, and it likely causes the same brain be­hav­ior.

My col­leagues and I think this could be a sur­vival mech­a­nism. Spend­ing all your time on crit­i­cal think­ing keeps you from get­ting every­thing else done, so you build trust in other peo­ple. You’re al­low­ing oth­ers to think for you. But the power of charisma doesn’t come from any par­tic­u­lar skill in the per­son in­flu­enc­ing you. It’s all about the faith you put in them.

Un­der­stand­ing how this all plays out neu­ro­log­i­cally has com­pletely changed the way I in­ter­act with the world, but that’s not nec­es­sar­ily a pos­i­tive thing in ev­ery sce­nario. It’s ru­ined my re­la­tion­ship with doc­tors. Some­times I wish I could just blindly trust that my physi­cian is pre­scrib­ing me the right med­i­ca­tion.

But I’ve come to ap­pre­ci­ate that trust needs to be earned—whether it’s in a doc­tor, a news source, or a per­son of author­ity.

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