Influence: Characteristics of Influential Agents

From the Lecture Series Influence: Mastering Life's Most Powerful Skill

By Kenneth G. Brown, Ph.D., The University of Iowa

Imagine you are just sitting down to dinner at home, savoring the smell of one of your favorite meals. You pick up your fork to get that first bite, and the doorbell rings and rings. You put down the fork and reluctantly walk away from the meal and take a look at who’s standing at your door. Who is it? you ask. It’s someone conducting a door-to-door survey.

The red figure of a person influences a crowd of people
(Image: Andrii Yalanskyi/Shutterstock)

You think, seriously? Visiting during my dinner hour? But the person begins to talk, and somehow, miraculously, you’re taken in and find yourself not only answering the questions, but also happily chatting away with this visitor. Who could influence you to abandon your favorite meal and answer a survey? What is it about some people that makes them capable of captivating, even pulling you away from something you’d rather be doing?

This is a transcript from the video series Influence: Mastering Life’s Most Powerful Skill. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Previously, we introduced the concept of agent, target, tactics and context—the four key factors that contribute to success or failure of influence. In this lecture we’re going to take a closer look at the A—the agent or person who’s trying to influence someone else. We’ll also identify some of the most important characteristics of the influential agent, and we’ll explore how those characteristics play out in real-world situations.

When it comes to people, what does research say about our perceptions of beauty and how it relates to influence?

Rule One: Be Attractive

Let’s review what we know about agent characteristics. We discussed liking; incidental similarity made a difference. Similarity led to liking, which allowed agents, in effect, to be more persuasive. What other characteristics of people lead to liking and more effective influence? Let’s start with an agent characteristic that’s literally right in front of your eyes but that you may not associate with influence. I’m talking about beauty, physical attractiveness. We often hear beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and it is true that people have different tastes and preferences for a wide variety of things, which is why people like different foods, and cars, and houses, and cell phones, and clothing. But when it comes to people, what does research say about our perceptions of beauty and how it relates to influence?

photo composite of lots of attractive faces
Across 67 studies, scientists found fairly high agreement about what constituted more and less physically attractive individuals (Image: Por pathdoc/Shutterstock)

University of Texas professor Judy Langlois and her colleagues examined research results across hundreds of studies, testing to see whether perceptions of physical attractiveness varied across people and cultures, and whether judgments of attractiveness correlate with other judgments about people. For example, when someone is more attractive, is that person also judged to be more intelligent?

Research suggests that having symmetrical, proportionally balanced features leads to greater attractiveness, regardless of culture. Other features associated with beauty include large eyes, a small nose, and prominent cheekbones.

Across 67 studies, they found fairly high agreement about what constituted more and less physically attractive individuals. Agreement was even high across ethnicities, and cultures, and for judgments of children, as well as adults. What are those characteristics? Research suggests that having symmetrical, proportionally balanced features leads to greater attractiveness, regardless of culture. Other features associated with beauty include large eyes, a small nose, and prominent cheekbones.

Attractive children and adults are treated more favorably than unattractive, basically. They receive more attention, cooperation, and care from other people. These results have important ramifications for influence.

Langlois and her colleagues also looked across many studies to see whether children and adults judged as attractive would also be seen as having other positive characteristics. They examined judgments of academic competence, adjustment, interpersonal competence, and social appeal for children and for adults. And they found across every single one of these dimensions that 75 percent of attractive children were judged to be above the mean. In comparison, only 25 percent of unattractive children were judged to be above the mean. If attractiveness didn’t matter, both of these numbers should be 50 percent. In adults, 63 percent of attractive faces were above the mean, and only 37 percent of the unattractive were judged above the mean. Langlois and her colleagues also examined studies measuring how people treat more or less attractive people. And what they found is that attractive children and adults are treated more favorably than unattractive, basically. They receive more attention, cooperation, and care from other people. These results have important ramifications for influence. Attractive agents have an advantage over other people as the targets of their influence will, without consciously deciding to do so, think positively of them and be more likely to cooperate. An attractive agent is more likely to be persuasive, all else equal.

Learn more about characteristics of an influential agent

Because research finds clear differences in how people are perceived and treated based on looks, researchers have continued to examine features of agents’ faces. And research now suggests that, in addition to effects of general attractiveness, there are other specific facial features that contribute to judgments of an agent’s trustworthiness. Professor Constantin Rezlescu of University College London and colleagues across the U.K. and U.S. designed a clever study to show how much we trust people with different facial features. The researchers used a game where people lend virtual money to a partner they see on a computer screen. Participants were shown a face on the computer screen, asked to read a bit of text, and given a choice of how much money to lend. Each person looked at a few different faces and made a series of lending decisions.

The average amount invested in an untrustworthy face was 44 virtual pounds, while trustworthy faces attracted 62 virtual pounds, almost 50 percent more.

What were the results? Well, the average amount invested in an untrustworthy face was 44 virtual pounds, while trustworthy faces attracted 62 virtual pounds, almost 50 percent more. Participants were not necessarily aware that they were using this facial information to determine how much they lend. But what happens if people know the past history of the people to whom they’re lending money? When given written information on the screen about how the person had behaved in the past, had this person given a good or bad rate of return on past lending, people lent more money to those with good history; that’s rational, 67 virtual pounds, as compared to 21 virtual pounds for those with a bad history. But if you had a trustworthy face, you received a bump of about 2 pounds. So even knowing a negative past history, a trustworthy face makes a difference. We just can’t help but be influenced by an agent’s looks.

The faces used in this study were actually created through detailed simulation work by Alexander Todorov at Princeton University. Todorov and his colleagues were able to mathematically model faces that vary along a dimension of trustworthiness. What do these faces look like? A trustworthy face is narrower with wider eyes, arching eyebrows, and a mouth that curves up at the sides. This type of face has what many would consider to be a feminine look. An untrustworthy face is wider, with a larger nose, and eyebrows and mouth that curve down at the sides. This face has more of a masculine, tough-guy look. Why would we make snap judgments of people’s trustworthiness based on facial features? One explanation is evolutionary theory. As social animals, humans need to make very quick judgments about potential threats with people that we’re interacting with. So fast processing of heavily masculine features, that are commonly associated with aggression, would lead to a judgment that someone is a risk and should not be trusted. Imagine a time earlier in our evolutionary history when we had a fraction of a second to decide whether someone who jumped out at us is a risk. The man with more feminine features may be far less likely to hurt us, and we carry this evolutionary history with us even today.

Groom your hair and skin so that they’re neat, and smile a lot. Both neatness and smiling are associated with attractiveness and will help you get perceived as positive in other ways.

If you are taking this course to help you become more influential, some of these studies can be depressing. It’s hard to change fundamental elements of your appearance, such as the bone structure of your face. But you can do a few little things to look more attractive. Most important, groom your hair and skin so that they’re neat, and smile a lot. Both neatness and smiling are associated with attractiveness and will help you get perceived as positive in other ways. Of course, how you look isn’t all that matters. There are certainly examples of average  looking, or even below-average looking, leaders who win over a company full, or even a country full, of people. What have these agents done over time to build credibility and trust with their targets of influence?

Confidence, Caring, and Integrity

First, they have ability, skills, and competencies that allow them to do things effectively. In other words, trustworthy people are competent. Second, trustworthy people have benevolence; they intend to help you. Another way to say this is that they are caring. Third, they have integrity; they abide by a set of principles that is clear and sensible. That’s another way of saying that trustworthy people are consistent in how they behave. So if you want to be seen as trustworthy, to lay the groundwork for future success as an agent of influence, then you should practice three Cs. You should strive to be competent, caring, and consistent.

This model allows us to move beyond initial impressions and offers specific suggestions about what you can do to develop a reputation for trustworthiness. Any agent who wishes to influence other people can work to correct misperceptions that occur as a result of facial features or other factors outside the agent’s control. For example, imagine the day you start a new job. Your boss comes up and says, “You look a lot like my ex-husband. It really bothers me.” For reasons that have nothing to do with you, you’re starting off in a hole, or to use a budgeting analogy, you’re starting off with a trust deficit that may make it hard to influence. Your best bet is to develop trust by remembering the three Cs. Work hard to build knowledge, and be competent in your work. Look after your boss’ interests, and be caring. And demonstrate concern for fairness, being consistent in how you make decisions. If you pursue these vigorously, you can increase your trustworthiness and the chance that your boss will trust you and maybe give you a promotion in the future. In other words, by building your trustworthiness, you create greater opportunity to wield influence successfully in your work place.

So far, we’ve discussed how looks and behavior can influence how you are perceived, including whether people will trust you. But I’ve left out an important characteristic. Imagine your favorite sports team, and picture someone you’ve never met wearing that team’s cap or jersey. What do you think about that person? Probably a pretty nice person, smart, sociable, certainly has good judgment. It’s funny how the mere label of “we’re on the same team” can influence judgments. There’s a long history of research in social psychology about the powerful effect that being placed on the same team can have on us.

Learn more about how to shape the perception others have of you

The Real Lord of the Flies

One of the most famous of these experiments will sound like it came straight out of William Golding’s 1954 novel, Lord of the Flies. Muzafer Sherif, when he was on faculty at the University of Oklahoma, took 22 boys, age 11 and 12, to a summer camp at Robbers Cave State Park in Oklahoma. The boys were split into two camps, the Rattlers and the Eagles, and over two weeks went through three phases of an experiment. In the first phase of the experiment, lasting just under a week, the teams worked independently, and the relationship among the boys was developed and studied. In the second phase, the groups were introduced to each other and asked to compete in a series of contests that included baseball, tug of war, and touch football. In the third phase, the groups were brought together and given tasks that they had to collaborate on to achieve.

Just as in Lord of the Flies, things got a little crazy in the second phase. A variety of conflicts emerged between the two groups. At one point the Eagles stole and burned the Rattlers’ flag, and each team raided the other’s cabins, messing up beds, throwing around personal items, and even cutting canoes adrift.

What happened? Just as in Lord of the Flies, things got a little crazy in the second phase. A variety of conflicts emerged between the two groups. At one point the Eagles stole and burned the Rattlers’ flag, and each team raided the other’s cabins, messing up beds, throwing around personal items, and even cutting canoes adrift. As relationships became even more tense, the groups stopped wanting to have anything to do with each other. And they would yell and curse at the others whenever they were in sight. The experimenters’ reports indicate that on multiple occasions the boys had to be separated from each other, including a food fight where rolls and mashed potatoes became weapons. After the contests were over, the boys were asked to rate characteristics of the members of each group. They rated members of their own group favorably—were brave and friendly. And the other group, those members were rated unfavorably—they’re sneaky and stinkers.

Fortunately, the third phase of Sherif’s experiment showed that people can overcome intergroup hostility and can cooperate with so-called outsiders. Let’s focus for a minute on the power of group identification. In the Robbers Cave experiment, there was a prolonged process in which groups formed, got to know each other, and then competed with another similarly cohesive group. This situation does happen, particularly in sports, but it happens less often when people are working together in the same organization or going to classes in the same school. In these settings there typically isn’t overt competition between groups. So let’s ask, does the general process of bias toward the in-group and against the out-group also occur in other settings? Or, worded in terms of influence, is someone on your own team more likely to be trusted and listened to than someone on the other team? The answer is a definitive yes. And this is where the work of another famous social psychologist, Henri Tajfel, comes into play.

To think that people would treat others differently based on groupings created by a coin flip sounds crazy, but that’s exactly what happened.

 Henri Tajfel
Henri Tajfel and his colleagues were interested in whether more neutral situations might lead to the same kinds of intergroup conflict (Image: By European Association of Social Psychologies/Public domain)

Tajfel and his colleagues were interested in whether more neutral situations might lead to the same kinds of intergroup conflict. So rather than inducing competition, as Sherif had done, Tajfel would simply group people together arbitrarily. In some experiments he grouped them according to whether they over or under estimated the number of dots flashed on a screen. In another study, he grouped people based on whether they preferred paintings by Klee or Kandinsky. At the extreme, Tajfel and one of his colleagues, Michael Billig, grouped people by flip of a coin—heads you’re over there, tails you’re over here. To think that people would treat others differently based on groupings created by a coin flip sounds crazy, but that’s exactly what happened. Participants in Tajfel’s studies described members of their own group more favorably than members of the other group, and they were more generous to members of their own group, as compared to members of the other group.

A Football Example

How does this relate to influence? What this suggests is that mere sense of shared group membership can increase liking and trust. So the agents who are most influential are those that have some overlap in group membership with their targets. This plays out in the real world. Consider what every athlete, athletic coach, or university president does upon being selected by a new team. He puts on the proper uniform. Think back to the last press conference you saw with a new team member, whether it was a basketball player drafted or a university president hired, for that new team member almost certainly wore a jersey, a hat or a tie of the new team. This was the case when football coach Rich Rodriguez was hired from West Virginia to coach the Michigan Wolverines. He was wearing the right tie, all maize and blue, but Rodriguez’s story shows that there’s a bit more to successful influence than wearing the right clothes; you have to talk the talk as well. At his opening press conference, he didn’t do a very good job convincing others he was part of the team. When he was asked by a reporter, “do you have to be a Michigan man to be the Michigan coach?” Rodriguez replied, “gosh, I hope not. They hired me.”

In the book Three and Out, author John Bacon describes Rodriguez’s troubled three years at University of Michigan. The scene was described as the start of a rocky relationship with some of the school’s big athletic donors. You see, a Michigan man is an idea that people in Ann Arbor talk about, an idea about being someone with pride, and courage, and a love for the team. Not all of the former Michigan coaches had played at Michigan, so being a Michigan man wasn’t really just about where you went to school. If Rodriguez had done a little more research and learned some about the team and the meaning of this phrase, he might have answered the question differently. A much better answer to this question, one that would have put Rodriguez squarely on the team and helped him through some of those difficult times would have been, you don’t have to have played here at Michigan to coach here. Some of the best Michigan coaches didn’t play at Michigan, but like each of them, I will strive to live up to the ideals of being a Michigan man. I’m honored by the opportunity to be part of that tradition of excellence. Research by Sherif, Tajfel, and others, and the story of Rich Rodriguez, suggest that shared group membership matters. And agents who carefully manage perception that they are part of the team will be much better able to influence. Wearing the right clothing helps, but saying the right things makes a difference too.

Charisma

Let’s move to another agent characteristic that can have a huge impact on the success or failure of an influence attempt—charisma. Charisma, which focuses even more on saying the right things in the right way, is often considered a magic quality of leadership that arouses loyalty and enthusiasm. And if you think of it as a rare and magical quality, you might also think that we’re back to facial features and other immutable characteristics of agents. There is actually a growing body of evidence suggesting that with training, anyone can become more charismatic. A study by John Antonakis, Marika Fenley, and Sue Liechti, all from the University of Lausanne, compared managers who received charisma training to those who did not. While the groups were similar before training, the trained groups showed higher levels of charisma after training according to their colleagues back at work, so the training worked, but what exactly did it include?

One of the authors hosted a five-hour training session with lots of discussion and practice. In addition, trainees were given feedback about the ways in which they were and were not charismatic. They were also given tips on charismatic speaking, which involves using metaphors and stories, setting high expectations, and having confidence. Charismatic speakers demonstrate passion with gestures and animated voice tone. We will actually discuss these ideas again in a later lecture, but for our purposes here, you should know that learners were given feedback and opportunities to practice both verbal and nonverbal behaviors, and as a result, they became more charismatic leaders at work. So charisma really isn’t some magical, inborn ability. It’s something that anyone can develop with feedback and targeted practice.

Certainly not all of us have the time and resources to get hours of training and coaching that participants in the Antonakis study received. but not all is lost. Olivia Fox Cabane, a consultant and frequent trainer on the topic of charisma, published a book called The Charisma Myth. In the book, she offers plenty of helpful advice that anyone can learn from. For example, Cabane notes that people who are judged as charismatic are typically confident and passionate and convey this through posture, gestures, and vocal tones. She argues that the path forward for all of us is clear: don’t try to act; just make yourself confident and passionate. But how do we do that?

According to Cabane, charisma begins in the mind. And what your mind believes, your body manifests. As a result, she offers a series of exercises to help people become more confident. Much of that begins with ridding yourself of physical and psychological discomfort. To deal with physical discomfort, which can make you fidget and look anxious, Cabane argues that you should prevent it when possible. But, when discomfort does occur, you need to recognize and remedy it right away. This suggests if you are uncomfortable, you should act on it rather than assume that people won’t notice. Charismatic people take charge of situations, and then they change those situations so that they appear confident.

Suppose, for example, you’re starting a new sales job, and you’re meeting a potential customer in an informal setting, the local coffee shop. When you arrive at the coffee shop, you’re wearing your heavy coat. It’s initially cold when you sit, so you leave it on, but over time you become quite uncomfortable. While waiting, being polite, for a good break in the conversation, your discomfort is probably already showing. And your discomfort undermines your ability to appear confident and connect with the person you’re talking to. You will be more comfortable and seem more competent if you apologetically interrupt and say, Oh, I’m sorry. Do you mind if I take off my coat? It feels hot in here.

The same idea should apply when you are cold, when your mouth is dry, or when the sun is in your eyes. If you take charge and do something to reduce your discomfort, you’ll prevent inadvertently giving off a series of nonverbal cues that undermine any sense that you’re charismatic. If you can prevent the appearance of nervousness, lack of confidence, and discomfort, then your potential customer sitting in that coffee shop will listen more carefully and be more likely to buy.

Responsibility Transfer

For psychological discomfort, Cabane suggests an exercise called responsibility transfer. It’s a simple process that you can follow when you begin to get anxious. It asks you to, first, sit comfortably and relaxed; second, take a deep breath, and then pick an entity, God, fate, a loved one, whatever fits you, and imagine in your mind that benevolent, caring presence. Now, finally, imagine lifting the weight of everything you’re anxious about and placing it in the hands of that entity. Let’s return to the coffee shop where you’re meeting your new customer. What happens if a group of friends bumps into you during this meeting? If you’re like me, you might be nervous making introductions around a big group. Your discomfort might be misinterpreted by your customer as, “boy, these people aren’t important,” or, “I’m nervous to be seen here with you in this conversation.” These misinterpretations of your inner state can seriously undermine your ability to make a favorable impression and close any subsequent deal. If you gather your thoughts for a minute, take a deep breath and do a responsibility transfer, then you will be more ready to make introductions so that there are no misunderstandings.

Learn more about how contextual cues can shape your attempts to influence others

Two Last Tips

While talking about agent characteristics that benefit influence, it’s easy to walk away thinking some people are born lucky; they’re likeable, attractive, or have trustworthy facial features. But as Cabane suggests in her book, there are quite a few things that you can do to maximize your chances of being an influential agent. Let me offer two more specific suggestions from her book that will help you be perceived as charismatic, and thus be more likely to influence the person you’re talking to. First, the next time you meet someone new, make sure you’re both comfortable. Get the setting right so you can focus your attention on getting to know the person rather than worrying about being too hot, or too cold, or having to go to the bathroom. Second, you can try one of Cabane’s training tools summarized in her book to improve your nonverbal behaviors. She suggests adopting the body language of someone who’s depressed, slumping your shoulders and hanging your head. Then, keeping that position, try to imagine being excited. You’ll find it quite difficult. Now do the opposite; put a smile on your face, and raise your arms in the air as if you won the big game or the big jackpot. Stay in that position and try, just try, to feel depressed. Doing this exercise a few times may help remind you of how the mind reads the body and allows it to guide mood. So the use of a smile and great posture can actually help you feel more confident, and you could do that before heading into a meeting. If you do this, it may really give you that extra boost that will help
you be persuasive.

In this lecture, we’ve talked about beauty, trustworthiness, shared group membership, and charisma. I opened the lecture by saying you might get lured into a conversation with someone doing a door-to-door survey. How could that happen? Imagine that the person standing there is attractive with a face you cannot help but think, this is a truly nice person. And guess what? She’s wearing your favorite team’s jersey as well. These are the kind of subtle cues that can influence your decision. If you aren’t careful, you might just get roped into answering that survey while your dinner gets cold.

What we’ve discussed in this lecture are all positive characteristics of agents, but there is a dark side to influence, as we all know. What leads some people to use tools of influence to cheat other people? We’ll explore that question in our next lecture.

Common Questions About Agents of Influence

Q: What makes an influential person?

Influential people are highly aware of the effect that their words, body language, and actions have on others.

Q: What are the characteristics of an influential leader?

Influential leaders are extroverted, modest, adaptable, empathetic towards others, and authentic.

Q: How do you positively influence others?

If you want to positively influence others, you should be positive and upbeat, keep your emotions in check when responding to sensitive situations, and demonstrate to others that you want the best for them.

Q: Why are some people influential?

Influential people have high expectations for themselves and others. They approach every situation, even challenging ones, with an optimistic attitude.

This article was updated on July 5, 2019

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