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Charming, Cold: Does Presidential Personality Matter?

Oct 23, 2012
Originally published on October 25, 2012 9:59 am

As part of NPR's coverage of this year's presidential election, All Things Considered asked three science reporters to weigh in on the race. The result is a three-part series on the science of leadership. In Part 2, Jon Hamilton examined leadership in the animal kingdom.

Charming or cold. Flexible or rigid. Paranoid or impulsive or calculating.

How important is the personality of a president? That is, how much of a difference does it actually make to what happens once a person is in office? Are certain personalities more likely to succeed where others are more likely to fail?

"Personality doesn't predict everything, but it does predict some things," says Dean Simonton, a psychology professor at the University of California, Davis, who studies presidential personality. Like most researchers of presidential personality, he believes that personality has consequences you can plot on a graph.

For instance, "how flexible a president is influences how much they use the veto power," Simonton says. "And high need for affiliation — wanting to get along with people — you're more likely to have a scandal when you have a president who's more oriented towards getting along with cronies than in making tough choices that might alienate their best friends."

These, according to Simonton, are just two concrete examples of the real-life consequences of personality characteristics.

This brings us to the subject of charisma. Though today we focus a lot on charisma — who has it and who doesn't — according to Simonton, charisma wasn't always important.

"Charisma was really not very useful in the early presidencies," he says. "There [weren't] that many opportunities to deliver big speeches, and most of the major decisions were done behind closed doors."

As a consequence, Simonton says, most of the presidents from America's early history were not particularly charismatic.

Consider the case of George Washington. Though most people assume Washington must have been intensely charismatic, Simonton says when personality researchers analyze his character, he is evaluated as just average in terms of charisma. Simonton says Washington wasn't particularly outgoing or charming or interested in being with people or energetic. In fact, Simonton says, during his first inaugural address, Washington was horribly awkward.

"He was very timid, visibly nervous, wasn't very dynamic. People were disappointed," Simonton says.

And Simonton says Washington isn't the exception — he's the rule among early presidents. Simonton ticks off a list: "Washington, John Adams, Jefferson — they're just all average," he says. "Madison is noticeably below average. Monroe is below average, and so is John Quincy Adams. And then you have Jackson — he's well above average in charisma. And then we go back to mediocrity again. Van Buren: average. William Harrison: a little bit below average. Tyler: average. Polk: average. Taylor: average. Buchanan: exactly average. Lincoln: a little bit above average."

And then you get to Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

FDR is rated as one of the most charismatic presidents in American history, but more important — at least to this story — Simonton says his presidency marks a clear shift in the kind of personality that's useful to have if you're trying to run for president.

You see, suddenly there was the widespread use of radio, and because there was suddenly the widespread use of radio, and later television, "you actually had to be interesting," Simonton says. "You really couldn't be boring."

According to Simonton, before FDR there were two presidents characterized by modern researchers as genuinely charismatic people: Andrew Jackson and Teddy Roosevelt. But afterward, there's a relative explosion: Kennedy, Johnson, Reagan and Clinton in a much shorter period of time.

So what are the policy consequences of this shift toward charismatic personalities?

"Charisma is associated with more legislation, more legislative victories, essentially being more successful in general as a legislator," Simonton says. "It's also associated with making more special messages to Congress and more executive orders."

But on the other hand, Simonton says, it doesn't actually make you better at making good decisions that will steer the country in the right direction.

"There's nothing about being a charismatic president that makes you more effective as a problem solver," he says. "All that charisma does is enable you to influence people. As far as actually being effective, there's no guarantee."

So from Simonton's perspective, it's not clear whether the shift toward charismatic personalities is good or bad for America. What is clear to him is that many of the Founding Father types we claim to revere probably wouldn't cut it in modern politics.

"I don't think there's a prayer that [George Washington] would be elected today," Simonton says.

Their gifts, he says, have essentially been selected out.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish.

We've spent many hours on this program talking about where President Obama and Mitt Romney stand when it comes to jobs, taxes, health care, foreign policy. These are the issues that sway voters.

BLOCK: But when Americans choose a president, they're also voting for the person they believe will make the best leader. What makes an effective leader? It turns out social science researchers have looked into this very question.

CORNISH: So we asked three reporters and the NPR Science Desk, folks who don't normally cover politics, to give us their input. In the first part of our series on the Science of Leadership, NPR's Alix Spiegel looks into the personalities of the American presidents.

ALIX SPIEGEL, BYLINE: How do you measure the personality of a president, the personality of someone too busy or too dead to talk to you?

DEAN SIMONTON: I think it's actually easier in some respects to evaluate the personality of the president of the United States than it is to evaluate the personality of the average person on the street.

SPIEGEL: Dean Simonton studies personality for a living. He's a psychology professor at the University of California, Davis. And he will tell you that, typically, to measure personality you sit someone down, give them a 30-minute test, then call it a day. But with presidents, he says, your window for observation is much wider.

SIMONTON: We're talking about 30, 40, 50 years of behavior samples where we get to see whether or not they're flexible or inflexible, idealistic or pragmatic, whatever the personality trait happens to be.

SPIEGEL: And to Simonton, personality is important because it can help you to see the future.

SIMONTON: It doesn't predict everything but it does predict some things.

SPIEGEL: Now, I actually talked to a number of different presidential personality researchers beside Simonton. And they all basically made the same argument, that while a lot of what happens during a president's term is the result of forces far outside any individual - what's going on economically, for example - if you look closely, you really can see correlations between specific personality traits and what actually happens once a president gets to office.

So, for example...

SIMONTON: How flexible a president is influences how much they use the veto power. And high need for affiliation, wanting to get along with people, you're more like to have a scandal. So those are real honest consequences of personality characteristics.

SPIEGEL: Which brings us to the subject of one personality characteristic in particular: charisma. According to Simonton, charisma wasn't always that important.

SIMONTON: Charisma was really not very useful in the early presidencies. There wasn't that many opportunities to deliver big speeches, most of the major decisions were done behind closed doors.

SPIEGEL: And as a consequence, Simonton says, most of the presidents from America's early history, they were not particularly charismatic. Take George Washington.

SIMONTON: I think the average person on the street probably thinks he was dynamic, great, very charismatic.

SPIEGEL: But Simonton says that wasn't the case, that when personality researchers analyzed Washington, he's evaluated as just average in terms of charisma. Simonton says Washington wasn't particularly outgoing or charming or energetic. In fact, Simonton says, during his first inaugural address, Washington was horribly awkward.

SIMONTON: He was very timid, visibly nervous, wasn't very dynamic. He was not someone who was charismatic.

SPIEGEL: And Washington is not the exception, Simonton claims, he's the rule. Simonton pulls out a copy of an analysis that rates American presidents on personality characteristics, including charisma, and reads down the list.

SIMONTON: OK. Washington, John Adams, Jefferson - they're just all average. Madison is noticeably below average. And then, Monroe...

SPIEGEL: Now, it's not that these people weren't great and effective men, Simonton says plenty were. And a couple were even charismatic, according to the modern definition. But most, according to Simonton, simply don't have what modern personality researchers characterize as great charisma.

SIMONTON: ...Tyler: average. Polk: average. Taylor: average...

SPIEGEL: That is, Simonton says, until you get to Franklin Delano Roosevelt and then, he says, there is a distinct change.

(SOUNDBITE OR ARCHIVED SPEECH)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Ladies and gentlemen, the president of the United States.

PRESIDENT FRANKLIN DELANO ROOSEVELT: My friends, I want to talk for a few minutes with the people of the United States about banking...

SPIEGEL: This is FDR delivering his first fireside chat. FDR is rated as one of the most charismatic presidents in American history. But more importantly, at least to this story, Simonton says his presidency marks a shift in the kind of personality that is useful if you're trying to run for president.

You see, suddenly there was radio, and since there was radio and, of course, later television...

SIMONTON: You actually had to be interesting to listen to. You couldn't be boring.

SPIEGEL: So, if you look at Simonton's list, there were two presidents that qualify as really charismatic by modern standards before FDR...

SIMONTON: Before FDR, you have Jackson and Teddy Roosevelt. And then after FDR, you have Kennedy, LBJ, Reagan, and I would also add Clinton on that list.

SPIEGEL: OK, so what are the policy consequences of this shift toward charismatic personalities?

SIMONTON: It's hard to say. Charisma is associated with more legislation, more legislative victories, essentially being more successful in general as a legislator.

SPIEGEL: But on the other hand, Simonton says, it doesn't actually make you better at making good decisions; that is, decisions that will steer the country in the right direction.

SIMONTON: There is nothing about being a charismatic president that makes you more effective as a problem solver. All that charisma does is enable you to influence people. As far as actually being effective, there's no guarantee.

SPIEGEL: So is this shift towards charismatic personalities good or bad for America? If you get fewer deliberative personalities, people who are slow and cautious about their decision-making, does that change the policies we get? Frankly, Simonton doesn't know. But he thinks one thing is pretty clear: many of the Founding Father types who we claim to most revere probably wouldn't cut it in modern politics. Their gifts, he says, have essentially been selected out.

Do you think that George Washington would be able to get elected today?

SIMONTON: I don't think there is a prayer that he would get elected today.

SPIEGEL: Alix Spiegel, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.