Is Obama a Narcissist?

Warning: For educational purposes only. I am a personality researcher not a political scientist!

Short Answer: Probably Not.

Longer Answer: There has been a fair bit of discussion about narcissism and the current president (see here for example). Some of this stemmed from recent claims about his use of first person pronouns (i.e., a purported use of greater “I-talk”). A big problem with that line of reasoning is that the empirical evidence linking narcissism with I-talk is surprisingly shaky.  Thus, Obama’s use of pronouns is probably not very useful when it comes to making inferences about his levels of narcissism.

Perhaps a better way to gauge Obama’s level of narcissism is to see how well his personality profile matches a profile typical of someone with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD).  The good news is that we have such a personality profile for NPD thanks to Lynam and Widiger (2001).  Those researchers asked 12 experts to describe the prototype case of NPD in terms of the facets of the Five-Factor Model (FFM). In general, they found that someone with NPD could be characterized as having the following characteristics…

High Levels: Assertiveness, Excitement Seeking, Hostility, and Openness to Actions (i.e., a willingness to try new things)

Low Levels: Agreeableness (all aspects), Self-Consciousness, Warmth, Openness to Feelings (i.e., a lack of awareness of one’s emotional state and some elements of empathy)

The trickier issue is finding good data on Obama’s actual personality. My former students Edward Witt and Robert Ackerman did some research on this topic that can be used as a starting point.  They had 86 college students (51 liberals and 35 conservatives) rate Obama’s personality using the same dimensions Lynam and Widiger used to generate the NPD profile.  We can use the ratings of Obama averaged across the 86 different students as an informant report of his personality.

Note: I know this approach is far from perfect and it would be ideal to have non-partisan expert raters of Obama’s personality (specifically the 30 facets of the FFM). If you have such a dataset, send it my way (self-reported data from the POTUS would be welcome too)! Moreover, Witt and Ackerman found that liberals and conservatives had some differences when it came to rating Obama’s personality.  For example, conservatives saw him higher in hostility and lower in warmth than liberals.  Thus, the profile I am using might tend to have a rosier view of Obama’s personality than a profile generated from another sample with more conservatives (send me such a dataset if you have it!). An extremely liberal sample might generate an even more positive profile than what they obtained.

With those caveats out of the way, the next step is simple: Calculate the Intraclass Correlation Coefficient (ICC) between his informant-rated profile and the profile of the prototypic person with NPD. The answer is basically zero (ICC = -.08; Pearson’s r = .06).  In short, I don’t think Obama fits the bill of the prototypical narcissist. More data are always welcome but I would be somewhat surprised if Obama’s profile matched well with the profile of a quintessential narcissist in another dataset.

As an aside, Ashley Watts and colleagues evaluated levels of narcissism in the first 43 presidents and they used historical experts to rate presidential personalities. Their paper is extremely interesting and well worth reading. They found these five presidents had personalities with the highest relative approximation to the prototype of NPD: LBJ, Nixon, Jackson, Johnson, and Arthur.  The five lowest presidents were Lincoln, Fillmore, Grant, McKinley, and Monroe. (See Table 4 in their report).

Using data from the Watts et al. paper, I computed standardized scores for the estimates of Obama’s grandiose and vulnerable narcissism levels from the Witt and Ackerman profile. These scores indicated Obama was below average by over .50 SDs for both dimensions (Grandiose: -.70; Vulnerable: -.63).   The big caveat here is that the personality ratings for Obama were provided by undergrads and the Watts et al. data were from experts.  Again, however, there were no indications that Obama is especially narcissistic compared to the other presidents.

Thanks to Robert Ackerman, Matthias Mehl, Rich Slatcher, Ashley Watts, and Edward Witt for insights that helped with this post.

Postscript 1:  This is light hearted post.  However, the procedures I used could make for a fun classroom project for Personality Psychology 101.  Have the students rate a focal individual such as Obama or a character from TV, movies, etc. and then compare the consensus profile to the PD profiles. I have all of the materials to do this if you want them.  The variance in the ratings across students is also potentially interesting.

Postscript 2: Using this same general procedure, Edward Witt, Christopher Hopwood, and I concluded that Anakin Skywalker did not strongly match the profile of someone with BPD and neither did Darth Vader (counter to these speculations).  They were more like successful psychopaths.  But that is a blog post for another day!

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What’s the First Rule about John Bargh’s Data?

Answer: You do not talk about John Bargh’s data.

I went on hiatus with back to school events and letter of recommendation writing.  However, I think this is a good story that raises lots of issues. I need to say upfront that these opinions are mine and do not necessarily reflect anyone else’s views. I might also be making a big enemy with this post, but I probably already have a few of those out there. To quote the Dark Knight: I’m not afraid, I’m angry.

Background: Bargh and Shalev (2012) published an article in Emotion where they predicted that trait loneliness would be “positively associated with the frequency, duration, and preferred water temperatures” of showers and baths (p. 156). The correlation between self-reported loneliness and self-reported “physical warmth extraction” from baths/showers was .57 in Study 1a (51 undergrads) and .37 in Study 1b (41 community members). This package received media attention and was discussed in a Psychology Today blog post with the title: “Feeling lonely? Take a warm bath.”

We failed to replicate this effect three times using three different kinds of samples. Our combined sample size was 925 and the overall estimate was – .02. We also used Bayesian estimation techniques and got similar results (the mean estimate was -.02 and 70% of the credible estimates were below zero). Again, the opinions expressed in this blog post are mine and only mine but the research was a collaborative effort with Rich Lucas and Joe Cesario.

[As an aside, John Kruschke gave a workshop at MSU this past weekend about Bayesian estimation. It was engaging and informative. This link will take you to his in press paper at JEP: General about the Bayesian t Test. It is well worth your time to read his paper.]

We just sent our paper off to get trashed in the undergo the peer review process.  However, the point that I want to raise is more important than our findings. Bargh let Joe Cesario look at his data but he forbids us from talking about what Joe observed. So a gag order is in place.

I think this is bull****. There is no reason why there should be a veil of secrecy around raw data. How can we have an open and transparent science if researchers are not allowed to make observations about the underlying data used to make published claims?

I doubt very much that there is even a moderate association between trait loneliness and showering habits. It might not be zero, but it is hard to believe the population value is anything around .50. Consider Figure 1 in Richard, Bond, and Stokes-Zoota (2003, p. 336). This is a summary of 474 meta-analytic effect sizes in the r-metric across social psychology. Richard et al. noted that 5.28% of the effect sizes they summarized were greater than .50. Viewed against this distribution, the .57 from Bargh and Shalev’s Study 1a is unusual. A .57 correlation is something I might expect to see when calculating the correlation between two measures of very similar constructs using self-report scales.

So before more data are collected on this topic, I would hold off on making any recommendations about taking warm baths/showers to lonely people. To quote Uli Schimmack: “In the real world, effect sizes matter.” I think replication and transparency matter as well.

Coverage of the Bargh and Shalev (2012) Study:

http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/choke/201201/feeling-lonely-take-warm-bath

http://www.scientificamerican.com/podcast/episode.cfm?id=hot-baths-may-cure-loneliness-11-07-02