Clinton’s and Trump’s personality profiles, according to psychologists

By Christian Jarrett

Today the American people are voting to choose between two of the most unpopular Presidential candidates in history. Commentators have speculated that part of the reason for the candidates’ unpopularity is their personality profiles. Clinton and Trump would seem to agree – both have repeatedly attacked each other’s characters and temperaments. But what exactly are their personality profiles, as judged as objectively as possible by personality psychologists?

For a paper published online at Personality and Individual Differences – and spotted by psychology writer Rolf Degan – 10 experts in the HEXACO method of measuring personality (7 men, 3 women, all avid followers of the election) completed a 100-item profile of each candidate. Distilling the findings, Beth Visser and her colleagues conclude that voters effectively have a choice between a bold and narcissistic, antisocial leader willing to make dramatic changes, and a Machiavellian but highly conscientious leader with a steady hand – Trump or Clinton. “Ultimately, this is a decision that voters, and not academics, will have to decide,” they write. 

The HEXACO personality model is similar to the more established five-factor model of personality, the most notable difference being a sixth dimension – Honesty-Humility. The psychologists rated both candidates low on this. Zooming in on the dimension’s four facets, Trump scored very low on sincerity, fairness, and greed avoidance and exceptionally low in modesty. Clinton was seen as normal on fairness and greed avoidance, but low on sincerity and very low on modesty.

Turning to the other personality dimensions, the psychologists also rated both candidates to be low on the Emotionality-Altruism dimension (made up of facets like fearfulness and anxiety). Whereas Clinton was rated normal on Extraversion and Agreeableness, Trump was rated high and extremely low, respectively. Finally, the psychologists rated Clinton high on conscientiousness and openness, but Trump low on both these traits.

Mapping these profiles onto the so-called Dark Triad of personality traits – narcissism, Machiavellianism and psychopathy – the researchers say that Trump’s personality has clear signs of narcissism and psychopathy (see also). Indeed, compared to population norms for the HEXACO test, he scored below the first percentile for agreeableness. Meanwhile, they said Clinton’s mix of low humility – including being on only the sixth percentile for modesty – and low emotionality and high conscientiousness, resembled a typical Machiavellian personality profile, “which seems consistent with the public’s perception of her as a career politician who calculates what needs to be done to succeed.”

Given the extremely antisocial nature of Trump’s personality, as rated by the psychologists and observed by media commentators, why does he command such popularity? “One possibility,” Visser and her colleagues speculated, “is that his non-personality skills (e.g. as a businessman) are seen as more relevant than his personality flaws.”

Meanwhile, relevant to the negative public perception of Clinton’s personality might be the fact that her profile is especially unusual when compared against the personality test norms for women, in relation to her low scores for traits like humility and emotionality. That is, some people might be judging Clinton harshly for having more stereotypically masculine traits. Such an interpretation would be consistent with recent research showing that female bosses are judged more harshly than their male counterparts for disrespectful behaviour.

Some may question the appropriateness of psychologists rating political figures in the manner of this study. In fact rightly or wrongly, there is a long tradition of psychologists attempting to profile the personality of American presidents. For example, a paper from 1978 looked into the possibility of predicting US presidents’ personalities based on their past speeches. The paper begins, “…with such prior knowledge of potential flaws of personality or real political inclinations, some national traumas might be avoided – at the voting booth.”

Visser and her colleagues are careful to acknowledge that the psychologists they recruited were rating the “public personalities” of the candidates. They also admitted the possibility of bias in that seven of the ten psychologist raters self-identified as left-leaning in their political persuasion. However, the researchers pointed out that whereas Trump supporters claim he is sincere while Clinton is dishonest, and vice versa for Clinton supporters, the psychologists in fact rated both candidates as being very low in sincerity – an apparent sign of impartiality,  even if not particularly promising for the future of America.

Is Hillary dishonest and Donald narcissistic? A HEXACO analysis of the presidential candidates’ public personas

Image via DonkeyHotey/Flickr

Christian Jarrett (@Psych_Writer) is Editor of BPS Research Digest

6 thoughts on “Clinton’s and Trump’s personality profiles, according to psychologists”

  1. Or may be Trump is using the classic NPD tool – manipulation and messing with vulnerable people’s minds. Learned that one that hard way! Now in recovery from the gas-lighting with a narcissistic abuse support group.

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  2. Seems like it would be impossible to account for the effects of the media on these experts’ profiles of the candidates. Unless they were careful to select raters that have very little exposure to media, yet sufficient direct exposure to the candidates (at least through speeches, writings, etc.), I think all we’re really getting are profiles of the candidates as the media perceives them. Additionally, it would have been very helpful to throw in some controls via profiles of other prominent politicians to somewhat account for politician characterisitics that may be somewhat universal and not unique to the candidates.

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  3. Unless you recruit raters who half / half on left-right, and this leaning is validated by a rating scale and the scores are reported, the study is worthless, because even we psychologists are prey to our own preconceptions and quasi-religious political views. So this report is misleading at best, and useless. All we have is self-report. There is no reason to think the 7/3 ratio is valid. Statistically it is likely to be 9/1 at best.

    Hasn’t Visser and her colleagues ever heard of Jonathan Haidt? Hasn’t the writer?

    The Wisdom of Crowds would suggest we had two equally inappropriate people running; Clinton wins the popular vote by a whisker, but fails with the “forgotten man & woman” who gave Trump the electoral college majority. Both are widely disliked, and to fail to see Clinton’s psychopathic and self-serving behavior shows the raters are either uninformed or willfully blind.

    I know personally a retired Secret Service man who was on the Presidential protection detail, and he saw Hillary’s out-of-control rages. Over and over, she abused those men sworn to give their lives for her. Where is that in this research? Should have been published in _The Journal or Irreproducible Results_.

    Shamefully partisan. Other than that, I have no strong opinions.

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  4. I agree with you that the evaluation would probably be biased, but find it ironic that you rely on second hand testimony or gossip in your own opinions….

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