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Charming, Cold: Does Presidential Personality Matter?

Charisma wasn't an early requirement for presidents, since many decisions were made behind closed doors, says psychology professor Dean Simonton. His analysis of the charisma of these three commanders in chief: John Adams: "Average." Thomas Jefferson: "Average." Andrew Jackson: "Well above average."
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Charisma wasn't an early requirement for presidents, since many decisions were made behind closed doors, says psychology professor Dean Simonton. His analysis of the charisma of these three commanders in chief: John Adams: "Average." Thomas Jefferson: "Average." Andrew Jackson: "Well above average."

As part of NPR's coverage of this year's presidential election, All Things Considered asked three science reporters to weigh in on the race. The result is a three-part series on the science of leadership. In Part 2, Jon Hamilton examined leadership in the animal kingdom.

Charming or cold. Flexible or rigid. Paranoid or impulsive or calculating.

How important is the personality of a president? That is, how much of a difference does it actually make to what happens once a person is in office? Are certain personalities more likely to succeed where others are more likely to fail?

"Personality doesn't predict everything, but it does predict some things," says Dean Simonton, a psychology professor at the University of California, Davis, who studies presidential personality. Like most researchers of presidential personality, he believes that personality has consequences you can plot on a graph.

For instance, "how flexible a president is influences how much they use the veto power," Simonton says. "And high need for affiliation — wanting to get along with people — you're more likely to have a scandal when you have a president who's more oriented towards getting along with cronies than in making tough choices that might alienate their best friends."

These, according to Simonton, are just two concrete examples of the real-life consequences of personality characteristics.

This brings us to the subject of charisma. Though today we focus a lot on charisma — who has it and who doesn't — according to Simonton, charisma wasn't always important.

"Charisma was really not very useful in the early presidencies," he says. "There [weren't] that many opportunities to deliver big speeches, and most of the major decisions were done behind closed doors."

As a consequence, Simonton says, most of the presidents from America's early history were not particularly charismatic.

Consider the case of George Washington. Though most people assume Washington must have been intensely charismatic, Simonton says when personality researchers analyze his character, he is evaluated as just average in terms of charisma. Simonton says Washington wasn't particularly outgoing or charming or interested in being with people or energetic. In fact, Simonton says, during his first inaugural address, Washington was horribly awkward.

"He was very timid, visibly nervous, wasn't very dynamic. People were disappointed," Simonton says.

And Simonton says Washington isn't the exception — he's the rule among early presidents. Simonton ticks off a list: "Washington, John Adams, Jefferson — they're just all average," he says. "Madison is noticeably below average. Monroe is below average, and so is John Quincy Adams. And then you have Jackson — he's well above average in charisma. And then we go back to mediocrity again. Van Buren: average. William Harrison: a little bit below average. Tyler: average. Polk: average. Taylor: average. Buchanan: exactly average. Lincoln: a little bit above average."

And then you get to Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

FDR is rated as one of the most charismatic presidents in American history, but more important — at least to this story — Simonton says his presidency marks a clear shift in the kind of personality that's useful to have if you're trying to run for president.

You see, suddenly there was the widespread use of radio, and because there was suddenly the widespread use of radio, and later television, "you actually had to be interesting," Simonton says. "You really couldn't be boring."

According to Simonton, before FDR there were two presidents characterized by modern researchers as genuinely charismatic people: Andrew Jackson and Teddy Roosevelt. But afterward, there's a relative explosion: Kennedy, Johnson, Reagan and Clinton in a much shorter period of time.

So what are the policy consequences of this shift toward charismatic personalities?

"Charisma is associated with more legislation, more legislative victories, essentially being more successful in general as a legislator," Simonton says. "It's also associated with making more special messages to Congress and more executive orders."

But on the other hand, Simonton says, it doesn't actually make you better at making good decisions that will steer the country in the right direction.

"There's nothing about being a charismatic president that makes you more effective as a problem solver," he says. "All that charisma does is enable you to influence people. As far as actually being effective, there's no guarantee."

So from Simonton's perspective, it's not clear whether the shift toward charismatic personalities is good or bad for America. What is clear to him is that many of the Founding Father types we claim to revere probably wouldn't cut it in modern politics.

"I don't think there's a prayer that [George Washington] would be elected today," Simonton says.

Their gifts, he says, have essentially been selected out.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Alix Spiegel has worked on NPR's Science Desk for 10 years covering psychology and human behavior, and has reported on everything from what it's like to kill another person, to the psychology behind our use of function words like "and", "I", and "so." She began her career in 1995 as one of the founding producers of the public radio program This American Life. While there, Spiegel produced her first psychology story, which ultimately led to her focus on human behavior. It was a piece called 81 Words, and it examined the history behind the removal of homosexuality from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.