Laughter and effective presidential leadership: A case study of Ronald Reagan as the 'great communicator'

Patrick A. Stewart, Reagan G. Dye, Carl Senior*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Former United States President Ronald Reagan’s use of media and his charismatic connection with viewers earned him the moniker “the great communicator”. One aspect of his charisma, the influence of elicited laughter, during a highly critical 5-minute news story by CBS reporter Leslie Stahl during the 1984 US presidential election is examined here. Two experiments examining the effects of audience laughter on perceptions of charismatic leadership are reported. In the first experiment the effects of audience laughter in response to Reagan’s comments were investigated. Here, Reagan’s perceived warmth as an effective leader significantly diminished when strong laughter is removed, whereas perceptions of competence remained unaffected. The second study carried out on an older cohort replicated and extended the first in a pre-registered design by considering the perception of trait charisma. Here, the presence or absence of audience laughter did not affect judgements of charisma. Additionally, the affective response before, and then after, the presentation of the news story was measured. Emotions associated with a positive appraisal all decreased after being shown the news story while emotions associated negative appraisal all increased. However, only participant anger was significantly increased when audience laughter was removed. Taken together the findings of both studies converge on the fact that subtle changes in media presentation of political leaders can have a significant effect on viewers. The findings show that even after 40 years in office the social psychological effects of presidential charisma can still influence observers.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere0301324
Number of pages21
JournalPLoS ONE
Issue number4
Early online date17 Apr 2024
Publication statusPublished - 17 Apr 2024

Bibliographical note

Copyright © 2024 Stewart et al. This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.

Data Access Statement

The data for study 1 are publicly accessible by contacting the authors. Study 2 is a preregistered replication and is available here (


  • Anger
  • Emotions
  • Health Status
  • Humans
  • Laughter
  • Leadership
  • Male
  • United States


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