Just How Dark Are the Candidates’ Personalities?

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As the 2016 presidential race draws to its merciful end, Hillary and Donald both have way lower favorability ratings than Barack and Mitt did at this time four years ago. While there are tons of things factoring into that dislike — from the rise of the alt-right to investigations that come up empty — one consistent theme is the candidates’ divergent personalities, down to Trump’s claim that he had “the temperament” to be president, while Clinton did not.

Lots of journalists and academics have tried to suss out what makes these two humans tick, or at least the traits of their public-facing personas. The standard approach is to measure the popular Big Five personality traits, which consist of extraversion, or how outgoing you are; agreeableness, or how warm you are; neuroticism, or how emotionally stable you are; conscientiousness, or how dutiful you are; and openness to experience, or how much you like novelty. But according to a Canadian research team in a new paper in Personality and Individual Differences the Big Five gloss over “dark” or antisocial personality traits, which, given how disliked the candidates are, is kind of a big omission.

To correct that, the researchers, lead by Beth A. Visser at Lakehead University in Ontario, used another personality model, HEXACO, to gain a richer, darker perspective. HEXACO includes agreeableness, conscientiousness, openness to experience, and extraversion, just like the Big Five, but also emotionality, or how strongly you react to things, and honesty-humility. According to the researchers, scoring low on honesty-humility means you’re more likely to “to manipulate and exploit others, feel entitled and important, and … break rules for personal gain.” To rate the candidates, the researchers recruited ten academics who had published peer-reviewed papers on the HEXACO model to fill out a 100-item questionnaire regarding the candidates’ public personalities. And that’s where things get revealing.

Following the ratings, the researchers say that Clinton “has some features in common with Machiavellian strategists,” as indicated by her low scores on honesty-humility and emotionality, which appear even lower when compared with female norms. Though this is diagnosis-from-a-distance, the authors say that Clinton may have a personality more in common with previous male presidential candidates than with average female voters. “While it may not be surprising that a candidate for the U.S. presidency has similar (dominant callous) traits to previous candidates, the gender abnormality of her traits may make her appear particularly unusual, especially in relation to stereotypically female traits, such as humility, empathy and emotionality,” the authors write. This speaks to what Georgetown linguist Deborah Tannen calls the “double bind” that women in authority face: The social norm for femininity is to defer, while to hold power is to command. Thus why so many powerful women are smeared as “nasty.”

Then there’s Trump, who scores low on conscientiousness, very low on emotionality, and exceptionally low on honesty-humility and agreeableness. “[H]is personality ratings were more in line with that of people scoring high on psychopathy and narcissism,” the authors write. “These very antisocial traits make it curious that people support Trump for the American presidency.”

Perhaps, the authors reason, his exceptionally high extraversion makes up for those traits, and would also explain his reality-TV fame and people’s perceiving him as an exciting leader. (Combined with his low agreeableness, I have to say, it may also account for his many zingers during the GOP primaries.) His low emotionality might relate to his comfort with entrepreneurial risk and his remarkably unfeeling ability to attack the disabled, the fat, and other people he doesn’t like. “Most seriously, his tendency to threaten others (low Honesty-Humility) and react to threats from others (low Agreeableness) are signs of a very antisocial personality,” Visser and her colleagues write. “As an example, these traits may help explain why he has by far the most lawsuits, for and against, of any presidential candidate.”

While this is far from the most rigorous personality assessment — ten experts making ratings from a distance — the paper does add texture to understanding what drives these people, or at least the personas they present to the world. Perhaps most of all, it helps give a richer theoretical framework for understanding why their personalities rub people the wrong way: that Hillary violates traditionalist gender prescriptions, and that Donald bulldozes through much of the social contract. The choice, then, is between someone who pushes society forward, and someone who pushes people around.