Echo and Narcissus (1903), a Pre-Raphaelite interpretation by John William Waterhouse

Echo and Narcissus (1903), a Pre-Raphaelite interpretation by John William Waterhouse. Wikimedia Commons

In Greek mythology, Narcissus fell in love with himself after gazing upon the splendor of his own reflection. Pathological admirer of his beauty, Narcissus eventually died of grief for not being able to reach the beautiful young man in the water. When thinking of Narcissus, whose story birthed the term narcissism to describe inordinate fascination with oneself or vanity, it’s hard to equate him with powerful leadership skills. Despite this, a new study found that grandiose narcissism in U.S. presidents is associated with ratings by historians of overall greatness of presidencies.

There are two times of narcissism according to psychology: there’s vulnerable narcissism where the individual is marked by excessive self-absorption, introversion and over-sensitivity; and there’s grandiose narcissism which characterizes extroverted, self-aggrandizing, domineering and flamboyant personalities. Quite a few U.S. presidents share this latter personality trait and apparently it had something to do with how well they ran the country, according to Emory University psychologists.

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

For their study, the psychologists analyzed  42 presidents, up to and including George W. Bush, using data  garnered from the insights of 100 experts, including biographers, journalists and scholars who are established authorities on one or more U.S. presidents. This data was then used to establish standardized psychological measures of personality, intelligence and behavior. Presidency term performance in history was scored using data from the C-SPAN (2009) and Siena College (2010) surveys.

Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest politician of them all?

Their results show that presidents overall exhibit an elevated level of grandiose narcissism compared to the general population and that in recent times the U.S. has had ever more grandiose narcissist presidents. This may be attributed to the rising importance of media charisma associated with higher popularity in election poles that favors candidates that are more attention-seeking and outgoing.

Former U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson scored the highest on the grandiose narcissism scale.

Former U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson scored the highest on the grandiose narcissism scale.

Current U.S. President Barrack Obama wasn’t included in the study, however, considering during his inaugural speech President Obama referred to himself 144 times and wrote two auto-biographies before the age of 45, with not that much to show for prior to publishing, chances are that he too may be eligible for inclusion in this fine roster.

However, while the study suggests that a lot of U.S. presidents were rather shallow, this didn’t affect their leadership capabilities quite on the contrary. Former President Lyndon B. Johnson  scored the highest of all former presidents, and although he failed to withdraw the nation from the Vietnam war, he did in fact ran an ambitious slate of progressive reforms aimed at alleviating poverty and creating what he called a “Great Society” for all Americans. an ambitious slate of progressive reforms aimed at alleviating poverty and creating what he called a “Great Society” for all Americans.

“It’s interesting to me that these are memorable presidents, ones that we tend to talk about and learn about in history classes,” Watts says. “Only rarely, however, do we talk about most of those who had low ratings for grandiose narcissism, like Zachary Taylor and Millard Fillmore.”

Lyndon Johnson’s mixed presidential legacy reflects both positive and negative outcomes tied to grandiose narcissism,  Scott Lilienfeld, Emory professor of psychology says. “Johnson was assertive, and good at managing crises and at getting legislation passed. He also had a reputation for being a bit of a bully and antagonistic.”

Johnson is followed the grandiose narcissism presidential ranking by Theodore Roosevelt, Andrew Jackson, Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy.

“In U.S. 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.”

Previously, the same team determined that fearless dominance associated with psychopathy is an important personality trait that may predict who gets elected for presidency. Add narcissism to the equation and, well, this can only make you think.

The study was reported in the journal Psychological Science.

Enjoyed this article? Join 40,000+ subscribers to the ZME Science newsletter. Subscribe now!

Like us on Facebook