Unit for the Study of Personality in Politics

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A Conversation on Alternative Approaches
to Political Personality

With Observations on Gore, Botha, De Klerk, and Mandela

Aubrey Immelman
Saint John’s University


Paul H. Elovitz
Ramapo College and the Psychohistory Forum

[Reprinted from Clio’s Psyche (Journal of the Psychohistory Forum), vol. 6, no. 1, June 1999: 25-30]

Paul H. Elovitz (PHE): In this era of the perpetual presidential campaign, as the November, 2000, election leads us to intensify our investigations of candidates and probable candidates, there are many questions regarding how to go about this task. When we presented together at the Psychohistory Forum’s March 6 session on impeachment, I noted the very different approach to political psychology which we each take. Would you spell out your methodology?

Aubrey Immelman (AI): I call my approach "psychodiagnostic meta-analysis," to distinguish it from classic psychobiographical and content-analytic approaches to the indirect assessment of political personality. Using the framework of personality theorist Theodore Millon, I compiled an inventory of diagnostic criteria and developed a scoring system for assessing personality patterns and their maladaptive variants. I call the assessment instrument the Millon Inventory of Diagnostic Criteria (MIDC). The system enables one to abstract personality data directly from clinical analysis of diagnostically relevant content in biographical material, journalistic accounts, and other sources of information in the public domain with respect to political leaders or historical figures.

PHE: Would you elaborate on and provide specifics about the diagnostic procedure?

AI: Psychodiagnostic meta-analysis can be conceptualized as a three-part process. In the initial data collection phase, bibliographic source materials are reviewed and analyzed to extract diagnostically relevant psychobiographical content. Next comes scoring and interpretation. The unifying framework provided by the inventory is harnessed to classify the diagnostically relevant information extracted in the data-collection phase. The diagnostic procedure concludes with an inference process, during which theoretically grounded descriptions, explanations, inferences, and predictions are extrapolated from Millon’s theory of personality, based on the personality profile yielded by the study.

PHE: My empathetically based psychobiographical approach is quite different. I focus on how personality is developed in childhood and tested in facing the traumas of life. I literally try to place myself in the shoes of my subjects and retrace their steps (sometimes literally), thoughts, and emotions at crucial moments in their lives. To do this well, I have to face my own feelings about politicians whom I tend not to trust, partly because I pay over 40% of my salary for various taxes which they have greater control over than anyone else.

In 1976 I started to develop my method in researching Jimmy Carter. It was a direct result of working to apply psychoanalytic insights to my work as a historian and student of politics. First, I started by reading Carter’s own account of his life in his political autobiography, Why Not the Best? (1975). Then, in my psychoanalysis, I probed my own feelings towards Carter and Southerners. The South’s apartheid system, which I had demonstrated against as part of the Civil Rights movement, had left me with a distrust of Southerners and a stereotyped view of them, which I had to overcome to be an effective psychohistorian. Next, I went to Plains, Georgia, and was given valuable information by Carter’s mother, Lillian; his sister, Gloria; and a variety of people who were important in his early development. My goal was to probe his childhood to find the roots of his adult personality and "character." I focused on emotion in Carter’s self-presentation and the disparity between what he said and did. To the extent that I had a model, it was Bruce Mazlish, In Search of Nixon (1972), but I interjected my personality much more directly than did Mazlish. A major reason for this was that I felt I could speak more authoritatively about my own reactions than about Carter, at an early, uncertain stage of my inquiry.

As I developed my technique, I increasingly came to use countertransference feelings in much the way I was taught to use them as a guide to figuring out what was going on with clients. Empathy has always been a primary tool of exploration and I devote an enormous amount of time and energy to empathizing with my subject. Reporting some of my own feelings also served to humanize the process of analysis. Aubrey, what are some of your thoughts regarding my very brief description of this approach?

AI: To be perfectly frank, as a non-analytically trained clinician, it would be anathema for me to use my emotional response to the subject as grounds for inference. Clearly, my training and experience has biased me in the direction of empirical observation and objective assessment techniques. Two questions come to mind. First, what is the theoretical justification for employing countertransference as an assessment tool; and second, what are the implications for replication, a basic tenet of scientific inquiry?

PHE: In psychoanalysis and many of the psychotherapies, we use the induced countertransference as a vital source of information—indeed, many books have been published on the subject. In psychoanalysis you spend an enormous amount of time, and money, discovering your own feelings and reactions to different people and situations. In analytic training you have many supervisions, called control analysis, with much of the time being devoted to your understanding your own reactions to patients and how to use them in treatment. You learn to note what feelings are induced in you by particular patients—you learn to use your own reaction as a barometer of what is going on with a patient. This may not be exact knowledge, but it is invaluable knowledge. It is a most helpful tool of understanding to enable the therapist to get beyond the manifest content, in which the patient is often stuck, to the underlying feelings and desires which may be at variance with the conscious intention of the conversation.

In turning to the psychobiography of presidential candidates, I simply use my finely tuned sensitivity to the nuances of expression and feeling. The layman calls this information intuition or hunches, but it is far more. When people are together, information is transmitted even if there is little or no conversation. We affect each others’ moods. Think about it, some people induce feelings of sadness, others gladness, others anger, or joy. The psychohistorian needs to attune her/himself to these and their variations.

I am more interested in insight than I am in replication in the name of a scientific ideal based on limited knowledge and an enormous number of variables. I see political psychology, political science, psychobiography, psychohistory, and psychoanalysis as art more than as science. We learn different things by pursuing paradigms of art and paradigms of science. Different analysts, even with the same type of psychoanalytic training, will still be different and, therefore, will not come to exactly the same conclusions. Stanley Renshon, for example, comes to similar, but not the same, conclusions I do about Bill Clinton in his fine book, High Hopes: The Clinton Presidency and the Politics of Ambition (1996).

AI: We certainly are following different paradigms.

PHE: What advantages and disadvantages do you see in your approach, and what advantages and disadvantages in mine?

AI: In my opinion, the principal advantage of my method is its quantitative aspect, which permits direct comparisons among political leaders. For example, I can directly evaluate individual differences among presidential candidates or presidents and relate these differences to variations in leadership style and executive performance. The method thus has predictive utility, an important consideration in the study of personality as it impinges on political behavior. Of course, existing content-analytic and trait-based procedures (e.g., Q-methodology) afford similar benefits. However, these approaches have significant limitations—limitations that are averted by my method. Most problematically, they often lack a solid foundation in personality theory.

A strong theoretical grounding enables investigators to generate explanations and predictions independent of the observations used to construct the personality profile, thereby revealing information that may be hidden from ordinary observation. Content analysis is handicapped by the additional problem that the relationship between the source materials and the subject’s personality may at best be tenuous. Modern presidential speeches represent highly artificial constructions of pre-polled utterances, images, and sound bites comprising multiple input by a team of advisers and speech writers, in addition to the unique contribution of the speech maker, whose personality characteristics are ostensibly enmeshed with its content.

PHE: I have often noted that I prefer discussing theory in the context of real people. I wonder if a case study approach may be illustrative of our varying methods? Can you give me an example of how you apply your approach to a contemporary American presidential contender—say, John McCain or Al Gore?

AI: Al Gore is preferable, as I have systematically studied him.

I start the process by finding published biographies and autobiographies, psychological-minded profiles by journalists and political analysts, and transcripts of interviews. I do not use speeches, because I have no way of knowing who wrote them. I read these materials and conduct what essentially is a qualitative content analysis, as described earlier. Once I have identified the subject of the study’s primary personality patterns, Al Gore in this case, I am able to consult the literature for guidance on the implications of the subject’s personality configuration in the major attribute domains encompassing Millon’s theory: expressive behavior, interpersonal conduct, cognitive style, self-image, object representations, regulatory mechanisms, morphologic organization, and mood/temperament.

Al Gore’s primary personality patterns—and I mean consolidated character patterns, not narrowly circumscribed personality traits or factors—were identified as conscientiousness and introversion. Thus, his characteristic expressive behavior is disciplined and impassive; his interpersonal conduct is respectful and unengaged; his cognitive style is constricted and socially impoverished; his self-image is conscientious and complacent; his object representations are concealed and meager; his regulatory mechanisms are reaction formation and intellectualization; his morphologic organization is compartmentalized and undifferentiated; and his mood/temperament is solemn and unexcitable. These observations provide a basis for inferring Gore’s leadership skills and deficits and predicting his likely role performance as chief executive of the United States.

For example, based on the personality assessment, Al Gore’s major personality strengths are diligence and low susceptibility to ethical misconduct. His major personality-based limitations pertaining to presidential performance are deficits in the important political skills of interpersonality, charisma, and spontaneity, as well as a self-defeating potential for tenaciously pursuing a pet policy or dogmatically advancing some central principle in defiance of legislative or public disapproval. Such single-minded, dogged determination incurs the risk of alienating some constituencies and diverting inordinate energy, attention, and resources from other important endeavors, tasks, and duties. Ultimately, the preponderance of conscientious features in Gore’s profile portends that he is unlikely to be a highly imaginative, visionary president or a transformational leader.

Based on these findings, I can also predict with a fair degree of confidence that Al Gore will fail in his bid to be elected president of the United States in 2000. Factor-analytic studies have shown that the extraversion-introversion dimension is the most salient personality attribute with reference to impression formation. Furthermore, extraversion plays a major role in personal charm, warmth, charisma, and interpersonality.

Working with data collected by Rubenzer, Faschingbauer, and Ones (presented in 1996 at the annual convention of the American Psychological Association), I am able to draw the following conclusions: (1) Starting with Franklin D. Roosevelt, every U.S. president (relative to other U.S. presidents) has been extraverted, with the exception of Richard M. Nixon, Gerald Ford (a non-elected president), and Jimmy Carter (an anomaly in the wake of the Watergate scandal). (2) Although Rubenzer and his associates do not provide empirical data for Barry Goldwater, Hubert H. Humphrey, George McGovern, and Walter Mondale, it can be speculated with a high degree of certainty that at least since John F. Kennedy, the more extraverted candidate has won the presidential contest every time, with the exception of Richard M. Nixon. In all likelihood, Nixon is the only postwar president to have bucked this trend, assuming that Humphrey and McGovern (almost certainly) were more outgoing.

PHE: You make a number of interesting points. I do feel that I am at a disadvantage in using Al Gore because I last systematically researched him during his unsuccessful 1992 presidential bid, when I never considered him to be a strong contender worthy of my intense scrutiny. Yet, I am happy to respond to some of your points and tell you some of my responses to the former senator from Tennessee as a casual psychohistorical observer. Without the benefit of Millon’s theory, which is new to me, through the years I have observed Albert Gore to be conscientious, constricted, disciplined, often solemn, unexcitable, and even wooden in manner—though in situations he can be quite comic in his humor about this rigid quality. He is clearly lacking in charisma and, in public settings, in spontaneity. In viewing his public appearances, sometimes I wonder if he has a reaction formation. I just don’t know if "introversion," "impassive," and "concealed and meager object representations" are a proper description and in the future I would like to see your evidence for these assessments. Perhaps, you will write on Gore for Clio’s Psyche?

AI: That is a nice possibility. I should, perhaps, note that the qualities you mention are theoretically based inferences derived from the candidate’s directly observable behaviors.

PHE: Clearly, Gore does not fit the mold of the outgoing politician that we have usually been electing in our age of televised elections. I agree that he is less susceptible to ethical misconduct than most politicians, though as front runner among the Democrats he will be tested intensely in this regard, partly as a spillover from the assault on Clinton’s ethics and presidency. As a vice president running for the presidency while in office, he also faces the prospects of an intense denigration, called the "Van Buren jinx," which only George Bush has overcome in the last 150 years.

Turning back to your points, I simply don’t know what you mean by "interpersonality." Regarding his "self-defeating potential," all human beings have it, so I would like to see your evidence. Because I have long thought that he is "unlikely to be a highly imaginative, visionary president or a transformational leader," I certainly do not disagree with this point. Your prediction that Gore will not be elected in the year 2000 assumes that the variables are controlled—but politics is not like a scientific experiment. Gore may not be the strongest candidate, but so far his main competitor for the Democratic nomination is Bill Bradley, a talented and serious candidate whose weaknesses are that he makes the vice president look telegenic and that he has little money and no strong political base. Nor do we know how strong the Republican candidate will be and if one of the parties may be hurt badly by a third party candidate.

Personally, I usually avoid presidential election predictions, except in casual conversations. It seems to me that you do not need a theory to arrive at most of your conclusions and that you are generalizing beyond the evidence. Though your approach comes across as based on science, I also note that you are "inferring Gore’s leadership skills." I respect your inferences, but I do not see them as more reliable than judgments based upon experience or my own methodology. Though I am sure you have lots of reactions to my statements, why don’t we continue this methodological discussion in the future when we have more time, using as a case study an emerging candidate that neither one of us knows much about at the present time. Interested?

AI: Most certainly. Just a brief clarification before we move on: My use of the term "interpersonality" is with reference to Dean Keith Simonton’s interpersonal dimension of presidential personality, which corresponds to the five-factor model’s Agreeableness dimension and was derived from Simonton’s study of the biographical use of the Gough Adjective Check List (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol. 51, 1986: 149-160).

PHE: Good. Right now I would like to know how you came to use your method? Did you study with Millon? Is it at all related to your personal history?

AI: I did not have the opportunity to study with Millon. As a clinical psychology intern in the early 1980s, I was trained in his framework for personality assessment by a supervising psychiatrist, a rather unbending but diagnostically astute mentor unreceptive to alternative approaches. When I started devising a methodology for indirect political personality assessment, in 1987, I contacted Millon, who was very gracious in providing me with the diagnostic criteria that provide the basis for his structured psychological assessment instruments.

Concerning my personal history, politically speaking I came of age in apartheid-era South Africa, whose defining moments for me were the Soweto uprising in 1976 and the national state of emergency in the second half of the 1980s when President P. W. Botha unleashed the full force of state-sponsored oppression in a last stand against the so-called "total onslaught" by internal and external opposition to the National Party’s apartheid policies. At the time, I was working as a clinical psychologist in the national health system. I must admit to moments of cynicism and disillusionment. To me, delivering mental health services in a maladaptive society was at times reminiscent of the proverbial Nero-fiddling-while-Rome-burned scenario. The final straw for me was when I was asked to treat a freed political prisoner, released from Robben Island where Nelson Mandela was incarcerated at the time, for paranoid schizophrenia.

My entry into political psychology had been a natural progression. As a first-year student in 1974, I became involved with the opposition Progressive Party, which at the time had just one member in parliament—Helen Suzman. A decade later, I had become the chair of the youth branch of the party in my city, after majoring in psychology and political science and then serving two years in the military as a conscript, which allowed me a glimpse into the inner workings of the nation-state’s security apparatus. By this time my party had, as I recall, 26 members in the approximately 140-member South African parliament.

By the mid-1980s I saw the writing on the wall for apartheid and knew there was significant internal opposition to the government’s apartheid policies, even from within the ruling National Party. However, I saw the siege mentality of its leadership as the major obstacle to change. It is at this point that my interest turned to personality in politics. I wanted to know what it was about President Botha’s personality that accounted for his resistance to change and his single-minded, aggressive pursuit of a failed policy, and whether it was possible to study these personality dynamics at a distance. I think it’s fair to say that I had more than a casual interest in political personality.

PHE: What was it in Botha’s personality that made him so rigidly devoted to a failed policy?

AI: Based on an assessment that I conducted in 1987, P. W. Botha was primarily an aggressive personality with quite distinctive suspicious (though not quite paranoid) features and secondary compulsive characteristics. He had a strong self-orientation and a lack of sensitivity to others. Of course, we should not forget that he was politically socialized as a true believer in a conservative, nationalist ideology.

PHE: Why was De Klerk more flexible?

AI: De Klerk is an enigma because his initiatives militated against the laws of politics, which are governed by the maintenance, enforcement, and extension of power. De Klerk in what many critics viewed as a total capitulation—a self-defeating political act of the highest order—played the role of dismantler of white supremacy. Between 1993 and 1995 I conducted three separate investigations, using slightly different methodologies, of F. W. de Klerk and Nelson Mandela. Interestingly, these studies all indicated that De Klerk and Mandela had fairly similar personality profiles. The primary personality trait for both leaders was conscientiousness. The two men also shared a strong sense of self-confidence as a secondary feature in their personality profiles. The major personality difference between the two was that De Klerk had stronger cooperative features whereas Mandela was more forceful.

PHE: What light do the personality profiles of South Africa’s three most recent presidents shed on the impact of their personal characteristics on the destiny of their country?

AI: De Klerk was instrumental in initiating the negotiation process. As I said earlier, he is quite conscientious. According to Millon, individuals with this quality "are notably respectful of tradition and authority, and act in a responsible, proper, and conscientious way. They do their best to uphold conventional rules and standards, following given regulations closely" (Millon Index of Psychological Styles, Psychological Corporation, 1994). This description is consistent with De Klerk’s history as a middle-of-the-road Afrikaner nationalist. It fails, however, to account for his change of direction upon assuming the presidency in 1989. After all, his predecessor, P. W. Botha, also demonstrated substantial conscientiousness. It is necessary, therefore, to examine the critical differences between the personalities of Botha and De Klerk.

The primary difference between these two leaders is Botha’s self-orientation versus De Klerk’s other-orientation. Botha’s aggressive, suspicious qualities are essentially absent in De Klerk, who, unlike Botha, has strong cooperative traits and a sensitivity to others. Although this analysis does not explain why De Klerk initiated political change in South Africa, it does serve to show why Botha could not; in short, Botha was constrained by aggressive and suspicious personality features, as well as a disdain for the needs of others and a lack of sensitivity to the social environment. The critical ingredient for successful reform in South Africa was its leaders’ capacity to cooperate rather than compete with political rivals. De Klerk, with his cooperative nature, possessed exactly this quality. Millon (1994) describes this personality pattern as follows:

Disinclined to upset others, they [cooperative personalities] are willing to adapt their preferences to be compatible with those of others. Trusting others to be kind and thoughtful, they are also willing to reconcile differences and to achieve peaceable solutions, as well as to be considerate and to concede when necessary. Cordiality and compromise characterize their interpersonal relationships.

It appears to be the combination of De Klerk’s cooperative characteristics with his deep-rooted, conscientious conventionalism (which allowed him to retain the trust of his constituency) that served as the key to South Africa’s transformation. But De Klerk’s personal disposition would have been of little consequence had it not been for compatible qualities on the part of Mandela, in whose cooperation ultimately lay the solution. Mandela, like De Klerk, emerged from my assessment as a predominantly conscientious personality with a conventional orientation and traditional values.

Characterizing Mandela as conventional is a contradiction in terms only from the perspective of the "system" politics of the old order; from the perspective of "struggle" politics Mandela personified the liberation establishment and its cause. Moreover, Mandela never represented the radical wing of the struggle, and has a long track record as an advocate of moderation and restraint, as reflected in his famous statement from the dock on April 20, 1964, during the Rivonia trial in which he was sentenced to life imprisonment:

I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for, and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.

This conciliatory quality favored Mandela for his role in South Africa’s transition. Ultimately, the transition from white domination to majority rule moved much faster than expected. At least in part, the rapid unfolding of events in South Africa can be accounted for by Mandela’s confident assertiveness. Millon (1994) describes this personality pattern as follows:

Competitive, ambitious, and self-assured, they naturally assume positions of leadership, act in a decisive and unwavering manner, and expect others to recognize their special qualities and cater to them. Beyond being self-confident, those with an Asserting profile often are . . . persuasive, having sufficient charm to win others over to their own causes and purposes." In summary, it appears that change in South Africa was driven by situational factors but given substance by the personal qualities of its leaders.

In psychological terms, Botha’s aggressiveness, dogmatism, and arrogance were replaced by De Klerk’s cooperativeness, pragmatism, flexibility, and sensitivity, complemented by compatible characteristics on the part of Mandela, with whom De Klerk chose to negotiate the future of South Africa. Had there been any substance to the prevailing white right-wing view that blacks constituted a threat to South Africa, that the liberation struggle formed part of a Communist-inspired "total onslaught" against civilized values, F. W. de Klerk would have been, from an Afrikaner-nationalist perspective, the worst possible leader for South Africa.

As it happens, however, the needs of the average black South African are no different from those of the average white; among these, quite literally, are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. In retrospect, it is fortunate that the script for South Africa’s transition to nonracial democracy could be co-written by a black moderate of unassailable stature and a rather conventional white conservative able to retain the trust of a significant proportion of the fearful white constituency, who had the insight to recognize the need for change, a conciliatory personal style, and the confident persistence to stay the course.

PHE: I find the discussion of Botha, De Klerk, and Mandela to be most interesting, but I also wonder how my conclusions would differ using the same primary sources. Thanks for an interesting exchange which I look forward to continuing.

Aubrey Immelman, Ph.D., is an associate professor of psychology at Saint John’s University and the College of Saint Benedict in Minnesota. He is a political psychologist specializing in the personality assessment of presidents, presidential candidates, and other public figures.

Paul H. Elovitz, Ph.D., is Editor of Clio’s Psyche and the author of numerous articles and chapters on presidents, candidates, and leadership.

For more information about Clio’s Psyche, contact Paul H. Elovitz, Editor, 627 Dakota Trail, Franklin Lakes, NJ 07417; telephone (201) 891-7486

Page maintained by Aubrey Immelman

Last updated July 13, 2000