Who’s the Fairest?

Narcissism reflects presidents’ bright and dark sides

By Carol Clark

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

For those dreaming of becoming president of the United States, however, some narcissistic traits may be worth fostering, suggests an analysis by Emory psychologists.

They found that grandiose narcissism in US presidents is associated with ratings by historians of overall greatness of presidencies, as well as high marks for public persuasiveness, crisis management, risk-taking, winning the popular vote, and initiating legislation. On the flip side, the study showed that grandiose narcissism is also associated with some negative outcomes, such as presidential impeachment resolutions, cheating, and bending rules.

The journal Psychological Science is publishing the results of the analysis, led by Ashley Watts, a graduate student in psychology at Emory, and Scott Lilienfeld, professor of psychology.

“Most people think of narcissism as predominantly maladaptive,” Watts says, “but our data support the theory that there are bright and dark sides to grandiose narcissism.”

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

The analyses drew upon personality assessments of forty-two presidents, up to and including George W. Bush, compiled by coauthors Steven Rubenzer and Thomas Faschingbauer for their book Personality, Character and Leadership in the White House. 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.

“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.”

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