Thursday, October 26, 2017

Trump's Grandiose Narcissism and Other Chimpanzee Personalities

Donald Trump's Narcissistic Personality Disorder is a reminder of the importance of personality in political life.  This should draw attention to the biological science of political psychology, which includes the biological study of nonhuman animal personalities as showing the evolutionary roots of the personality traits manifest in U.S. presidents and other political actors.

Psychologists have identified two different dimensions of the narcissistic personality--grandiose narcissism and vulnerable narcissism.  Trump is obviously a grandiose narcissist.

Psychologists have studied grandiose narcissism among U.S. Presidents.  Here's the abstract for one study (Watts et al. 2013):

"Recent research and theorizing suggest that narcissism may predict both positive and negative leadership behaviors.  We tested this hypothesis with data on the 42 U.S. presidents up to and including George W. Bush, using (a) expert-derived narcissism estimates, (b) independent historical surveys of presidential performance, and (c) largely or entirely objective indicators of presidential performance. Grandiose, but not vulnerable, narcissism was associated with superior overall greatness in an aggregate poll; it was also positively associated with public persuasiveness, crisis management, agenda setting, and allied behaviors, and with several objective indicators of performance, such as winning the popular vote and initiating legislation.  Nevertheless, grandiose narcissism was also associated with several negative outcomes, including congressional impeachment resolutions and unethical behaviors.  We found that presidents exhibit elevated levels of grandiose narcissism compared with the general population, and that presidents' grandiose narcissism has been rising over time.  Our findings suggest that grandiose narcissism may be a double-edged sword in the leadership domain."

This study built upon the data set of Rubenzer and Faschingbauer (2004), who had 121 expert raters (such as historians and psychologists who have studied the lives of the U.S. presidents) evaluate the personality of the 41 U.S. presidents up to and including Bill Clinton.  Watts et al. (2013) added ratings of George W. Bush from a previous study.  They were then able to rank the first 42 presidents for their grandiose narcissism.  Here are the top seven:

1. Lyndon Johnson
2. Teddy Roosevelt
3. Andrew Jackson
4. Franklin D. Roosevelt
5. John Kennedy
6. Richard Nixon
7. Bill Clinton

This suggests that Trump's grandiose narcissistic personality is not unique among the U.S. presidents, although we might wonder whether Trump manifests a more extreme form of this personality than any other president.  Perhaps this shouldn't surprise us.  After all, shouldn't we expect that the sort of person who would have the driving ambition for power that would motivate him to successfully win the presidency would often have the traits of a grandiose narcissist--such as fearless dominance?

These same personality traits can be seen in other political animals.  I have written about the biology of animal personalities (here), and particularly chimpanzee personalities (here).  For me, this shows that any biopolitical science needs to include the biological biographies of the individual animals in any political community.  The biological study of the political life of any animal community must include not only the genetic history of the species and the cultural history of the community, but also the individual history of the political actors in the community, with each individual having distinct personality traits.

Now, a new article (Weiss et al. 2017) presents a study of the personality traits of the chimpanzees in the Kasekela and Mitumba communities of Gombe National Park in Tanzania.  The New York Times has an article on this study.

The method for identifying the personality traits of these chimpanzees was essentially the same as that used for studying the personalities of U.S. presidents.  The personalities of 128 chimpanzees in Gombe were rated on 24 items from the "Hominoid Personality Questionaire," which is a slightly modified version of questionaires used to rate the personality of human beings as following the "five-factor-model" of personality based on five domains--Openness to Experience, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism (OCEAN).  The ratings were made by the Tanzanian field assistants who have observed the chimpanzees at Gombe almost daily for over 30 years.

For each of the 24 items, the raters were asked to rate a chimpanzee on a seven point scale from low to high.  Each item was stated as an adjective along with one or two descriptive sentences.  Here are some examples:
"FEARFUL: Subject reacts excessively to real or imagined threats by displaying behaviors such as screaming, grimacing, running away or other signs of anxiety or distress."
"DOMINANT: Subject is able to displace, threaten, or take food from other chimpanzees.  Or subject may express high status by decisively intervening in social interactions."
"RECKLESS: Subject is rash or unconcerned about the consequences of its behaviors."
"THOUGHTLESS: Subject often behaves in a way that seems imprudent or forgetful."
"VULNERABLE: Subject is prone to be physically or emotionally hurt as a result of dominance displays, highly assertive behavior, aggression, or attack by another chimpanzee."
"BULLYING: Subject is overbearing and intimidating towards younger or lower ranking chimpanzees."
 "AGGRESSIVE: Subject often initiates fights or other menacing and agonistic encounters with other chimpanzees."
"IMPULSIVE: Subject often displays some spontaneous or sudden behavior that could not have been anticipated.  There often seems to be some emotional reason behind the sudden behavior."
These ratings were statistically analyzed for "interrater reliability"--that is, the degree to which the ratings of the same chimp by different raters agree.  For most of the items, the interrater reliabilities ranged from acceptable to good.

There are three important conclusions from this study.  First, this confirms that, like other animals that have been studied, these chimps really do show individual personalities.  Second, the patterns in the personalities of these wild chimps are similar to those found among captive chimps in zoos or study facilities.  Finally, this shows remarkable similarities in personality traits between these chimps and human beings, which suggests an evolutionary continuity in personality traits.

Notice how some of the items in the above list apply to Trump.  Dominant?  Reckless?  Thoughtless?  Bullying?  Aggressive?  Impulsive?  I have written some posts on "Trump's Chimpanzee Politics" (here  and here).

Notice also that the study of presidents found a connection between grandiose narcissism and impeachment resolutions and unethical behavior. If Trump is impeached by the Congress, or if the Cabinet uses the 25th Amendment to declare him "unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office," we will have to decide whether Trump's personality traits are so dangerous for the country that he should be removed from office.

Can the president's authority to launch nuclear strikes with thousands of nuclear warheads be trusted to someone with the most extreme form of grandiose narcissism, perhaps even more extreme than Lyndon Johnson or any other previous president?  Or should the Congress declare that the president has no constitutional authority to launch a preemptive attack without a congressional declaration of war?


Rubenzer, S. J., and T. R. Faschingbauer. 2004. Personality, Character, and Leadership in the White House: Psychologists Assess the Presidents. Brassey's Inc.

Watts, Ashley, et al. 2013.  "The Double-Edged Sword of Grandiose Narcissism: Implications for Successful and Unsuccessful Leadership Among U.S. Presidents." Psychological Science 24: 2379-2389.

Weiss, Alexander, Michael Wilson, D. Anthony Collins, Deus Mjungu, Shadrack Kamenya, Steffen Foerster, and Anne E. Pusey. 2017. "Personality in the Chimpanzees of Gombe National Park." Scientific Data 4, article number: 170146.


Anonymous said...

Wow, it still really burns you that Trump won and you were shown ridiculously mistaken, out of touch, and in an academic ivory tower.

Larry Arnhart said...

So are you saying that Trump is not a grandiose narcissist?

expeedee said...

Yes, Trump is probably a grandiose narcissist. But America is also a grandiose narcissistic empire, albeit on the downslide. Trump is a perfect fit for a country in doubt and that's why he won. After all, who'd want to vote for an insecure apologist? Can Trump secure the border, get the economy on track, re-negotiate bad trade deals, reduce the price of pharma, increase take-home pay for workers, crush Isis, reduce regulations, deport gang members, neutralize North Korea? We'll see. So far so good and he hasn't yet used the launch codes. As Twain said, "All you need is ignorance and confidence and success is assured."