Book review: The Charisma Myth: How Anyone Can Master the Art and Science of Personal Magnetism, by Olivia Fox Cabane.
This book provides clear and well-organized instructions on how to become more charismatic.
It does not make the process sound easy. My experience with some of her suggestions (gratitude journalling and meditation) seems typical of her ideas – they took a good deal of attention, and probably caused gradual improvements in my life, but the effects were subtle enough to leave lots of uncertainty about how effective they were.
Many parts of the book talk as if more charisma is clearly better, but occasionally she talks about downsides such as being convincing even when you’re wrong. The chapter that distinguishes four types of charisma (focus, kindness, visionary, and authority) helped me clarify what I want and don’t want from charisma. Yet I still feel a good deal of conflict about how much charisma I want, due to doubts about whether I can separate the good from the bad. I’ve had some bad experiences in with feeling and sounding confident about investments in specific stocks has caused me to lose money by holding those stocks too long. I don’t think I can increase my visionary or authority charisma without repeating that kind of mistake unless I can somehow avoid talking about investments when I turn on those types of charisma.
I’ve been trying the exercises that are designed to boost self-compassion, but my doubts about the effort required for good charisma and about the desirability of being charismatic have limited the energy I’m willing to put into it.
Book review: Honest Signals: How They Shape Our World by Alex (Sandy) Pentland.
This book makes it clear that verbal communication is a recent evolutionary development in humans which has only replaced a modest amount of the communication that our pre-linguistic ancestors used. The fact that we are much more aware of our verbal communication than our other forms of communication shouldn’t cause us to underestimate those other forms.
A good deal of the studies mentioned in the book consist of measures of nonverbal communication in, say, speed dating can predict results about as reliably as I’d expect from analyzing the words. These could be criticized for not ruling out the possibility that the nonverbal signals were merely responses to information communicated by words. But at least one study avoids this – entrepreneurs pitching business plans to VCs showed nonverbal signals that were excellent predictors of whether the VCs would accept the business plans, before getting any verbal feedback from the VCs. Even more surprising, investments made by VCs with nonverbal information about the entrepreneurs did better than those evaluated on written-only presentations.
The sociometers used to measure these nonverbal signals have potential to be used in helping group decision making by automatically detecting the beginnings of groupthink or polarization, which should in principle allow leaders to stop those trends before they do much harm. But it’s not obvious whether many people will want to admit that analyzing the words of a conversation has as little importance as this research implies.
One of the more interesting methods of communication is for people to mimic each others body language. This is surprisingly effective at creating mutual interest and agreement.
The sociometer data can be of some value for information aggregators by helping to distinguish independent pieces of information from redundant information by detecting which people are likely to have correlated ideas and which are likely to have independent ideas.
I wish this book were mistaken, and that most of human interaction could be analyzed the way we analyze language. But it seems clear that unconscious parts of our minds contain a good deal of our intelligence.
Book review: Monkeyluv: And Other Essays on Our Lives as Animals by Robert M. Sapolsky.
This collection of essays starts out by rehashing nature/nurture arguments that ought to be widely understood by now, but then becomes mostly entertaining and occasionally quite informative.
He mentions one interesting study which questions sexual selection arguments put forward by Geoffrey Miller and others about animals selecting mates with better genes. The study shows that female Mallards produce stronger offspring after mating with more attractive males because they invest more resources in those eggs, rather than because of anything that seems connected to the genes provided by the males.
He helps explain the attraction of gambling by describing experiments which show larger dopamine releases due to rewards that are most uncertain (the subject thinks they have a 50% chance of happening) than is released when there’s more certainty (e.g. either a 25% chance or a 75% chance) of the same reward.
One place where I was disappointed was when he described “repressive personalities”, which he made seem quite similar to Aspergers, and made me wonder whether I fit his description. “dislike novelty”? My reaction to novelty is sufficiently context-dependent that any answer is plausible. “prefer structure and predictability”? Yes and usually. “poor at expressing emotions or at reading the nuances of emotions in other people”? That’s me. “can tell you what they’re having for dinner two weeks from Thursday”? I could probably predict 5 days in advance with 50% accuracy, so I’m probably closer than most people. So I Googled and found another description (mentioning the same researcher that Sapolsky mentioned) in the Sciences and find descriptions of “repressive personality” that seem wildly different from me (“a strong personal need for social conformity” and “agreement with statements framed as absolutes, statements loaded with the words never and always”). Who wrote this competing description? Wait, it’s the same Sapolsky! It looks like his current description reuses a small piece of an older article with inadequate thought to whether it’s complete enough.