Steven Rubenzer and Thomas Faschingbauer have found a way to give personality tests to U.S. presidents from George Washington to George W. Bush. No, they don't use a time machine. Instead they administer a 600-item personality questionnaire to a select group of historians and biographers. "By studying most presidents in depth, biographers did most of the hard work. We tried to mine their knowledge, focus their judgments, and provide a shared language and format...The process of biography is necessarily personal and subjective, which by definition precludes objective, scientific analysis. Our study incorporates two strategies to improve this situation: multiple raters and the use of objective personality tests to reduce idiosyncratic judgments and bias." (p. 311)
Their raters included both generalists who have studied all U.S. presidents and specialists who have focused on one or two. Their questions ask about character, job performance and personality. The Revised NEO Personality Inventory is their key instrument, scoring each president on the "Big Five" personality dimensions of Emotional Stability, Extraversion, Openness to Experience, Agreeableness and Conscientiousness. Each of the five personality factors consists of a number of subscales, thoroughly explained in the first chapter. A set of detailed technical appendices describe the authors' methods, correlations between scales and other details needed to evaluate the technical quality of their work.
Personality profiles for each president are compared to other presidents and to the general public. As a group, presidents are more Extraverted and Conscientious than average Americans and less Agreeable and Open to Experience. There are interesting findings in the subscales, including that presidents are more assertive and achievement-oriented and less straightforward than the rest of us. The authors' examine personality traits related to presidential success and popularity. Surprises here include an increasing role for extraversion and need for power and a decreasing role for traditionally-defined "character" across two centuries of presidential performance.
Using statistical clustering techniques, the authors identify eight different types of presidents, each group with a common personality profile. They name these groups Dominators, Introverts, Good Guys, Innocents, Actors, Maintainers, Philosophes, and Extraverts. The authors describe the shared characteristics of presidents in each cluster and contrast their differences. Their brief biographical sketches of individual presidents are well-written and help readers to understand the strengths and limitations of personality profiles compared to traditional narrative biography. These authors do not "push" their own methods overmuch, noting--even highlighting--where their conclusions depart from the judgments of history. The effect is an informative and restrained characterization of each president.
This book presents a careful and responsible integration of "scientific" personality assessment with traditional historical biography. It is good reading for anyone interested in U.S. presidents or in personality methods, generally. I particularly recommend it to psychology students eager to see psychology's relevance to history and politics. It is also thought-provoking for text analysts who might devise ways to extract personality profiles directly from presidential biographies or collections of personal papers.