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Science: U.S. presidents are becoming more narcissistic over time

Richard Nixon makes a fist. Richard Nixon (Ellsworth Davis / The Washington Post)

Presidents of the United States are gradually becoming more narcissistic, and that might not necessarily be a bad thing.

That isn't meant as an endorsement of the unethical behavior associated with some kinds of narcissism in a new analysis of data on presidential personalities. Unethical behavior should never be condoned. Ever!

Well, okay. Maybe sometimes. But only sometimes. In the right circumstances. If you are concerned with good executive leadership in general, say, you might be willing to forgive the occasional lapse.

According to the researchers who conducted the analysis, narcissism seems to be correlated with better leadership overall. "I think some of the traits we find most endearing in our our leaders, and most attractive in our leaders, may also be things we have to look out for a little bit," said Scott Lilienfeld, an Emory University psychologist and one of the authors of the paper in Psychological Science (paywall).

The group's goal in its research was to use the large body of data on the public and private lives of the presidents to examine what it means for your relationships with others and your chances in life if, you know, you sometimes think you're the center of the universe.

They examined data from questionnaires given to presidential biographers and scholars against several indicators of success in the Oval Office, including polls of historians and objective measures such as reelection and impeachment proceedings.

They found that presidents with personality traits that psychologists describe as "grandiose narcissism" receive better ratings from historians, who tend to say, for example, that such presidents are more persuasive and more competent in a crisis.

Still, if you are the president, you shouldn't necessarily try to be more self-centered just in case a crisis arises. There are other traits that don't have the same negative consequences and that might be more important for good leadership, such as intelligence. Lincoln, commonly viewed as one of the country's best presidents, does not score highly on any of the researchers' measures of narcissism.

The most narcissistic presidents on the scale of grandiosity are, in order, Lyndon B. Johnson, Teddy Roosevelt, Andrew Jackson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and John F. Kennedy.

Unsurprisingly, the authors also found that presidents are more narcissistic than non-presidents.

As for the increase in narcissism over time, Lilienfeld said there is no obvious explanation for it. Some psychologists have argued that all of us are becoming more narcissistic, in which case it wouldn't be surprising that presidents are as well -- but that remains a controversial subject among researchers.

Line graph showing narcissism scores of U.S. presidents over time
U.S. presidents are gradually becoming more narcissistic. Data from Watts et al. in Psychological Science.

Another possibility is that modern elections favor a different kind of person.

"It’s getting harder and harder to get elected without being a little bit grandiose," Lilienfeld said. "You have to be telegenic. You have to be extroverted. You have to some skills at self-promotion."

President Obama is not included in the data set.

Max Ehrenfreund writes for Wonkblog and compiles Wonkbook, a daily policy newsletter. You can subscribe here. Before joining The Washington Post, Ehrenfreund wrote for the Washington Monthly and The Sacramento Bee.



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