Thinking On Your Feet

The very best stand-up comedians have a gift more powerful than a ready wit – they have the ability to think on their feet and adapt and respond in a fraction of a second. Their ability to react to an audience quickly is something that cannot be taught or learned – it is inborn. On the stage it can mean the difference between life and death.

A AW

This may come as a surprise, but IQ and personality not as important as a quick brain and rapier-like repartee. The downside though is that people who possess this ability are not as gifted when it comes to empathy for others’ feelings. Rapidity of thought and action are more impressive than quality. And who better to prove the point than a group of Australians, renowned for their quick wit?

After much research, Aussie psychologists have confirmed that people who are quicker at answering general knowledge questions come across as more charismatic and thus more impressive. [The salaried wit at a party is always popular and never to be found lurking in the kitchen on his own.] Other factors, including IQ and emotional intelligence are not as important as the ability to think and respond swiftly. The Australian study has been published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

The Australian’s mission was to discover the psychological basis of charisma, and whether or not this quality depends on specific personality traits.

In order to test how mental agility contributes to charisma, they carried out a study involving over 400 participants. All the participants had first undergone personality and intelligence tests.  The researchers also asked the participant’s friends to rate how charismatic, funny, and quick-witted they were.

All the volunteers were then tested with 30 simple questions, ostensibly to test their general knowledge. The test included questions that they had to answer as rapidly as possible, such as naming a famous boxer or film star. They were also given a mental speed test based on visual tasks, including spotting a dot on a screen as quickly as possible.

By cross-referencing the results with the friend’s answers, the team found the people who were faster in the mental speed tests were also rated more charismatic by their peers. The clear end result was that intelligence and personality turns out to play a less important role than speed.

In addition, and contrary to the researcher’s predictions, mental speed was not associated with social skills such as conflict management or understanding other people’s feelings.

The words ‘class clown’ immediately spring to mind. Usually known for low exam results, he is nevertheless popular because of his ability to crack off the cuff jokes. There was one in my class when I was at school and although not very bright academically, he did have the ability to have us all in fits of laughter at exactly the right time, choosing his moment with the expert precision of an opportunistic vulture. It’s not just those with a natural talent for comedy that have this knack of rapid thought – if you examine charismatic politicians, artists, musicians, they all have this gift.

So speed is everything in the popularity stakes. Social intelligence depends more than an adeptness for specific social mores or certain social abilities, such as the ability to read people’s facial expressions. Whilst these are undoubtedly important components of social intelligence, the Australian research shows that quickness of thought also plays an important, if hitherto unrecognised role.

The Aussies also comment that people who think more quickly are better at masking second-rate replies by including often ad-libbed associated humour. This sort of social intelligence is key to the survival strategy of some members of the human race. Having spent a goodly proportion of my life in the entertainment business, it makes complete sense to me.

Copyright Andrew Newton 2016. All rights reserved.