Standing out. Past presidents were more assertive and less modest than the average citizen.

What Makes a Great President?

WASHINGTON, D.C.--Character does matter. A new personality profile shows that politicians who have made it to the Oval Office are more likely than you or me to be brash, bold, and downright disagreeable. Among presidents, a few more noble qualities set the truly great apart from the not-so-great, the study found. Unfortunately for campaign managers, it's too early to say whether either of today's presidential wannabes has the stuff of greatness.

Psychologists use a battery of standard personality inventories to rate people: how socially outgoing they are; whether they're conscientious, open to new ideas, and agreeable; and dozens of other traits.

To quantify the personalities of past U.S. presidents, a team of psychologists led by Steve Rubenzer of the Mental Health and Mental Retardation Authority of Harris County in Houston, Texas, consulted the people who know past presidents best: historians. They asked 115 experts who had written book-length biographies to fill out three personality inventories on their subjects, based on each president's behavior during the 5 years preceding his term, to measure personality before the office shaped it.

Compared to current U.S. population norms, U.S. presidents were more extroverted and disagreeable than their constituents. They were also more assertive, less modest, and--showing that politics has always involved some subterfuge--less "straightforward."

Presidents themselves also differed. Those whom experts rate as great, such as Jefferson and Lincoln, the team found, were "attentive to their emotions, willing to question traditional values ... imaginative, and more interested in art and beauty than less successful Chief Executives." They were also more stubborn and "tender-minded," a measure of concern for the less fortunate, the team reported at the American Psychological Association conference here on 5 August. As for the current presidential contenders, not enough biographers are available yet to construct a reliable personality profile, Rubenzer says.

Psychologist Dean Simonton of the University of California, Davis, agrees that some character traits do help presidents achieve greatness--notably intellectual brilliance. But he cautions that other external factors are more likely to dictate how a president is judged, some of which he has little control over: the number of years spent in the Oval Office, whether he served while the country was at war, and whether he was assassinated during his term.

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The American Psychological Association's convention

Posted in Brain & Behavior