For US presidents, narcissism has a dark side

Lyndon B. Johnson, who scored highest on markers of grandiose narcissism, was "assertive and good at managing crises and at getting legislation passed," says Scott Lilienfeld. "He also had a reputation for being a bit of a bully and antagonistic." (Credit: Arnold Newman, White House Press Office/Wikimedia Commons)

If you have dreams of becoming president of the United States, an inflated sense of your own importance may be worth fostering, although there could be a downside, psychologists say.

Narcissus, the physically flawless character of Greek mythology who wound up falling in love with his own reflection, hardly seems like a good role model.

But a new study finds that grandiose narcissism in US presidents is associated with overall greatness—as well as high marks for public persuasiveness, crisis management, risk-taking, winning the popular vote, and initiating legislation.

On the flip side, it’s also associated with some negative outcomes, including presidential impeachment resolutions, cheating, and bending rules.

“Most people think of narcissism as predominantly maladaptive,” says Ashley Watts, a graduate student of psychology at Emory University. “But our data support the theory that there are bright and dark sides to grandiose narcissism.”

Memorable presidents

Lyndon B. Johnson scored highest on markers of grandiose narcissism, followed by Theodore Roosevelt, Andrew Jackson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and John F. Kennedy.

“It’s interesting to me that these are memorable presidents, ones that we tend to talk about and learn about in history classes,” Watts says. “Only rarely, however, do we talk about most of those who had low ratings for grandiose narcissism, like Zachary Taylor and Millard Fillmore.”

Published in the journal Psychological Science, the study shows 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,” says Scott Lilienfeld, professor of psychology.

Distinct behaviors

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 over-sensitivity. 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 says. “It’s probably inherently blurred in nature.”

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.

Johnson’s mixed legacy

More than 100 experts, including biographers, journalists and scholars who are established authorities on one or more US 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 says.

“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 US history, there is an enormous variety in presidential leadership style and success,” Lilienfeld says.

“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.”

Researchers at the University of Georgia contributed to the study.

Source: Emory University