Emory University psychologists discovered that grandiose narcissism in U.S. presidents is associated with ratings by historians of overall greatness of presidencies.
Grandiose narcissism is characterized by an extroverted, self-aggrandizing, domineering and flamboyant personality.
Presidents with narcissist traits also scored high on public persuasiveness, crisis management, risk-taking, winning the popular vote and initiating legislation.
However, some negative aspects of grandiose narcissism include presidential impeachment resolutions, cheating and bending rules.
The new study is published in the journal Psychological Science.
“Most people think of narcissism as predominantly maladaptive,” said Ashley Watts, study leader, “but our data support the theory that there are bright and dark sides to grandiose narcissism.”
Researchers found that Lyndon B. Johnson scored highest on markers of grandiose narcissism, followed by Theodore Roosevelt, Andrew Jackson, Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy.
President Johnson was known both for getting tough legislation passed, and for being “a bit of a bully,” said Scott Lilienfeld, Ph.D., a so-investigator.
“It’s interesting to me that these are memorable presidents, ones that we tend to talk about and learn about in history classes,” Watts said.
“Only rarely, however, do we talk about most of those who had low ratings for grandiose narcissism, like Zachary Taylor and Millard Fillmore.”
The researchers also found that presidents exhibit elevated levels of grandiose narcissism compared with the general population, and that presidents’ grandiose narcissism appears to be rising over time.
“As the importance of television and other media has grown in presidential elections, this could be giving an edge to those with the attention-seeking, outgoing personalities associated with grandiose narcissism,” Lilienfeld said.
In psychology terms, narcissism comprises at least two largely distinct patterns of behavior associated with different traits. Vulnerable narcissism is marked by excessive self-absorption, introversion and oversensitivity.
Grandiose narcissism, on the other hand, is characterized by an extroverted, self-aggrandizing, domineering and flamboyant interpersonal style.
“We don’t believe there is a specific dividing line between normal and clinical narcissism,” Lilienfeld said. “It’s probably inherently blurred in nature.”
A queen obsessed with being “the fairest of them all” illustrates a worst-case scenario of narcissism and leadership in the classic fairy tale “Snow White.”
Their analyses drew upon personality assessments of 42 presidents, up to and including George W. Bush, compiled by co-authors Steven Rubenzer and Thomas Faschingbauer for their book “Personality, Character and Leadership in the White House.”
More than 100 experts, including biographers, journalists and scholars who are established authorities on one or more U.S. presidents, evaluated their target presidents using standardized psychological measures of personality, intelligence and behavior.
For rankings on various aspects of job performance, the analysis relied primarily on data from two large surveys of presidential historians: One conducted by C-SPAN in 2009 and a second conducted by Siena College in 2010.
Lyndon Johnson’s mixed presidential legacy reflects both positive and negative outcomes tied to grandiose narcissism, Lilienfeld said. “Johnson was assertive, and good at managing crises and at getting legislation passed. He also had a reputation for being a bit of a bully and antagonistic.”
Franklin D. Roosevelt, he adds, was also a highly assertive, dominant personality, but not particularly antagonistic or impulsive.
“In U.S. history, there is an enormous variety in presidential leadership style and success,” Lilienfeld said. “One of the greatest mysteries in politics is what qualities make a great leader and which ones make a disastrous, failed leader. Grandiose narcissism may be one important part of the puzzle.”
The study of narcissism and the presidency follows an earlier analysis by Lilienfeld and colleagues that showed that the fearless dominance associated with psychopathy may be an important predictor of U.S. presidential performance.
Source: Emory Health Sciences