Narcissism isn’t all bad if you’re living in the White House, according to research published in Psychological Science in October. Though the trait is considered a personality flaw, it tends to help presidents — as well as hurt them.
Ashley L. Watts, a doctoral student at Emory University and the lead author of the study, told PsyPost the findings “suggest that the relations between grandiose narcissism and indicators of successful narcissism are much more nuanced than previous literature suggests.”
Narcissists tend to have fantasies of extraordinary success, heightened feelings of entitlement, and a lack of empathy. Research has found that narcissists can be divided into a “vulnerable” subtype and a “grandiose” subtype.
Vulnerable narcissists tend to be defensive, insecure and inhibited. They are bitter that others do not treat them with the respect and admiration they think they deserve. Vulnerable narcissists tend to have a low self-esteem.
Grandiose narcissists, in contrast, tend to be aggressive, domineering and immodest. They view themselves as immensely superior to others, and act accordingly. Grandiose narcissists tend to have an over-inflated self-esteem.
Watts and her colleagues found the latter subtype of narcissism was associated with superior presidential performance.
“Although narcissism is typically viewed as a predominantly maladaptive construct, our data support the relatively recent theory that narcissism, at least in some domains, may be a double-edged sword; that is, there may be bright and dark sides to grandiose narcissism,” she explained to PsyPost. “What we hope our audience takes home from this manuscript is that grandiose narcissism may neither be entirely good nor entirely bad. Rather, grandiose narcissism is related to indicators of superior presidential leadership, but also indicators of illegal or unethical behaviors, as well as negative outcomes.”
For their study, the researchers had 121 experts evaluate the personality of 42 U.S. presidents up to and including George W. Bush. The researchers then compared the presidents’ personality profiles to various measures of presidential performance.
They found presidents who exhibited higher levels of grandiose narcissism tended to have better C-SPAN ratings of public persuasiveness, crisis management, and agenda setting. The C-SPAN poll, conducted in 2009, was based on 64 U.S. historians who rated the presidents on ten attributes of leadership.
“Not to repeat myself too much, but our data suggest that presidents higher in traits associated with grandiose narcissism are rated as better leaders, are more persuasive and more willing to take risks, than their less narcissistic counterparts,” Watts told PsyPost. “At the same time, however, these same presidents were also more likely to face impeachment proceedings and behave unethically during their time in the White House.”
Vulnerable narcissism was not associated with presidential performance.
“We did not expect vulnerable narcissism to be related to indicators of superior performance or leadership because vulnerable narcissism itself is largely maladaptive,” Watts told PsyPost. “While grandiose narcissism appears to be a constellation of positive (e.g., interpersonal dominance, charisma) and negative (e.g., antagonism, entitlement) traits, vulnerable narcissism comprises largely negative traits (e.g., antagonism, social withdrawal, emotional fragility).”
“Further, vulnerable narcissism is almost exclusively correlated with negative outcomes (e.g., internalizing symptomology, lower self-esteem). Because of this, it is likely that those high in vulnerable narcissism do not have the characteristics that make grandiose narcissists more successful, at least in the leadership domain.”
Lyndon B. Johnson was ranked as the president who exhibited the highest level of grandiose narcissism, while Millard Fillmore was ranked as the lowest. Andrew Johnson was ranked as the president who exhibited the highest level of vulnerable narcissism, while Rutherford B. Hayes was ranked as the lowest.
The researchers also found that U.S. presidents tended to be more narcissistic than the general population and that grandiose narcissism in presidents, but not vulnerable narcissism, has increased over time.