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All the Presidents' Miens

Ideas: New research examines the character and personality of the men who have been--and would like to be--in the White House.

August 12, 1996|SHARI ROAN | TIMES HEALTH WRITER

TORONTO — Ronald Reagan was the least neurotic. Thomas Jefferson was the most intelligent. Warren G. Harding was the least open to experience and the least conscientious. And Teddy Roosevelt led the pack in extroversion.

These findings are drawn from an extensive, new database on presidential character and personality that its creators--psychologists who specialize in job performance--hope will become a tool to assist Americans in selecting their leaders. The research, presented Friday at the annual American Psychological Assn. meeting here, examines the personalities of all 41 presidents in greater depth, detail and objectivity than ever before.

The data compares presidents on numerous traits such as intelligence, conscientiousness and neuroticism and sheds light on what kind of a president--great or not so great--a candidate might make, said Baylor College industrial psychologist Thomas Faschingbauer.

The database is more detailed and reliable than previous attempts to categorize presidents by their character. To obtain the data on each president, more than 100 experts--typically presidential biographers or historians--rated presidents using several well-known personality instruments. (An extensive attempt was made by researchers to find the most objective biographical accounts.)

The raters completed a battery of standardized tests designed to evaluate presidents; many of the tests included 100 or more questions. The experts looked at personality traits over the person's entire life--not just the period in which they served as the nation's leader. Thus, the database can be used to look at presidential candidates and how they measure up to past presidents, said the researchers, who also looked at candidate Bob Dole.

Personality, along with experience, is considered very important to any career success, said researcher Deniz S. Ones, an industrial psychologist at the University of Minnesota.

"Personality matters. It represents a good chunk of job performance," says Ones.

Differences in personality can often be distinguished by five significant characteristics: neuroticism, extroversion, openness to experience, agreeableness and conscientiousness, the psychologists said.

Using this measure, Teddy and Franklin Roosevelt were rated No. 1 and 2 in extroversion, respectively, with Bill Clinton third.

Richard Nixon was the most neurotic; Clinton ranked 23rd.

Jefferson and Teddy Roosevelt were 1 and 2 in intelligence while Clinton ranked ninth and Dole 27th.

In openness to experience, Jefferson scored highest, with Clinton 10th and Dole 30th.

On agreeableness, James Madison and Abraham Lincoln were ranked at the top with Clinton 20th and Dole 33rd.

George Washington was found to be the most conscientious with Dole 25th and Clinton 40th.

But possessing admirable personality traits doesn't always mean one will be a great president, Ones noted. By using previously published rankings of presidents in terms of their greatness, the researchers were able to look for common personality traits and ones that didn't seem to matter.

Successful U.S. presidents tend to score high on IQ, assertiveness and competency. Striving to achieve was found to be the most important attribute. The great presidents scored low on straight-forwardness and compliance, Ones said, while traits such as trust and altruism didn't seem to matter.

The authors of the database hope to publish a book on their research in time for the presidential race in 2000.

Other findings gleaned from the database include:

* Presidents generally are more extroverted and assertive than typical Americans. But they are aren't as good at taking action and aren't as straightforward.

* Clinton, Lyndon Johnson and Andrew Jackson were found to be similar. They are described as "good ol' boys" who get low marks for character and integrity but rank high in the need for excitement and in their creative leadership style.

* George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson are seen as introverted.

* Dwight Eisenhower and Harry Truman are extroverts while Ulysses S. Grant, William Howard Taft and William McKinley are viewed as passive.

* Richard Nixon and John Adams are described as the "dour scholars."

* Among the presidents where good biographical information is available, George Washington was rated tops in character and among the most recent presidents Jimmy Carter was fifth.

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