Written by: Brent Donnellan
Primary Source: The Trait-State Coninuum
Warning: For educational purposes only. I am a personality researcher not a political scientist!
Short Answer: Probably Not.
Longer Answer: There has been a fair bit of discussion about narcissism and the current president (see here for example). Some of this stemmed from recent claims about his use of first person pronouns (i.e., a purported use of greater “I-talk”). A big problem with that line of reasoning is that the empirical evidence linking narcissism with I-talk is surprisingly shaky. Thus, Obama’s use of pronouns is probably not very useful when it comes to making inferences about his levels of narcissism.
Perhaps a better way to gauge Obama’s level of narcissism is to see how well his personality profile matches a profile typical of someone with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). The good news is that we have such a personality profile for NPD thanks to Lynam and Widiger (2001). Those researchers asked 12 experts to describe the prototype case of NPD in terms of the facets of the Five-Factor Model (FFM). In general, they found that someone with NPD could be characterized as having the following characteristics…
High Levels: Assertiveness, Excitement Seeking, Hostility, and Openness to Actions (i.e., a willingness to try new things)
Low Levels: Agreeableness (all aspects), Self-Consciousness, Warmth, Openness to Feelings (i.e., a lack of awareness of one’s emotional state and some elements of empathy)
The trickier issue is finding good data on Obama’s actual personality. My former students Edward Witt and Robert Ackerman did some research on this topic that can be used as a starting point. They had 86 college students (51 liberals and 35 conservatives) rate Obama’s personality using the same dimensions Lynam and Widiger used to generate the NPD profile. We can use the ratings of Obama averaged across the 86 different students as an informant report of his personality.
Note: I know this approach is far from perfect and it would be ideal to have non-partisan expert raters of Obama’s personality (specifically the 30 facets of the FFM). If you have such a dataset, send it my way (self-reported data from the POTUS would be welcome too)! Moreover, Witt and Ackerman found that liberals and conservatives had some differences when it came to rating Obama’s personality. For example, conservatives saw him higher in hostility and lower in warmth than liberals. Thus, the profile I am using might tend to have a rosier view of Obama’s personality than a profile generated from another sample with more conservatives (send me such a dataset if you have it!). An extremely liberal sample might generate an even more positive profile than what they obtained.
With those caveats out of the way, the next step is simple: Calculate the Intraclass Correlation Coefficient (ICC) between his informant-rated profile and the profile of the prototypic person with NPD. The answer is basically zero (ICC = -.08; Pearson’s r = .06). In short, I don’t think Obama fits the bill of the prototypical narcissist. More data are always welcome but I would be somewhat surprised if Obama’s profile matched well with the profile of a quintessential narcissist in another dataset.
As an aside, Ashley Watts and colleagues evaluated levels of narcissism in the first 43 presidents and they used historical experts to rate presidential personalities. Their paper is extremely interesting and well worth reading. They found these five presidents had personalities with the highest relative approximation to the prototype of NPD: LBJ, Nixon, Jackson, Johnson, and Arthur. The five lowest presidents were Lincoln, Fillmore, Grant, McKinley, and Monroe. (See Table 4 in their report).
Using data from the Watts et al. paper, I computed standardized scores for the estimates of Obama’s grandiose and vulnerable narcissism levels from the Witt and Ackerman profile. These scores indicated Obama was below average by over .50 SDs for both dimensions (Grandiose: -.70; Vulnerable: -.63). The big caveat here is that the personality ratings for Obama were provided by undergrads and the Watts et al. data were from experts. Again, however, there were no indications that Obama is especially narcissistic compared to the other presidents.
Thanks to Robert Ackerman, Matthias Mehl, Rich Slatcher, Ashley Watts, and Edward Witt for insights that helped with this post.
Postscript 1: This is light hearted post. However, the procedures I used could make for a fun classroom project for Personality Psychology 101. Have the students rate a focal individual such as Obama or a character from TV, movies, etc. and then compare the consensus profile to the PD profiles. I have all of the materials to do this if you want them. The variance in the ratings across students is also potentially interesting.
Postscript 2: Using this same general procedure, Edward Witt, Christopher Hopwood, and I concluded that Anakin Skywalker did not strongly match the profile of someone with BPD and neither did Darth Vader (counter to these speculations). They were more like successful psychopaths. But that is a blog post for another day!
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